There is light at the end of the tunnel for GCSE and A-level students

Many young people who are in their final GCSE and A-level years have been studying diligently over the Easter break, and they are doing this in preparation for teacher assessment in the next couple of weeks or so. In most good schools where students achieve top grades year in year out, the headteacher and staff have decided to do some sort of teacher assessment – call it a test, mini-exam or whatever you like.

In some schools, teachers are more relaxed about the whole thing and their own idea of fairness is to set no assessment whatsoever and just base everything on teacher judgement, with very little or zero documented evidence to support the grades they are awarding.

There are several reasons why the schools who are doing tests have decided on that option. They include trying to be fair and, more importantly, preparing their students for what lies beyond GCSE or A-level. They are trying to be fair as they know that some students try harder and prepare well when it comes to an exam and they want to give those young people the opportunity to shine. This is in contrast to the teachers who are using only the judgement they have been forming about a particular student over a number of years, usually not always evidence-based and never anywhere close to being 100% accurate.

As a parent and an educator, my advice to fellow parents is to encourage your child to give it their best and take teacher assessment seriously – preparing for it as if it was a serious exam, irrespective of what teachers have told them. This does not only apply to Y11 and Y13 (upper sixth students), but also younger children who do not have any major exam, or shall I call it grade-awarding stage, for at least another year. My own son is still in Y10 at the present, and I remind him all the time of two things: the GCSE is a two-year course and also of what has happened in the last two years – teacher assessment for awarding grades. In my humble opinion, there is a 95% chance of GCSE and A-level exams happening in the summer of 2022. The 5% chance of the exams not going ahead could be attributed to another serious public health issue or in fact the cancellation of    GCSEs altogether. This is based on the ongoing debate about the future of GCSEs and, although I doubt it, who knows if A-level too will enter the debate in a serious way!

The worst damage that the cancellation of GCSE and A-level, and teacher assessed grades, which I will call teacher-judgement grades, did was not grade inflation. It was to demotivate teenagers   heading towards a key phase of their education from doing any academic work for five to six months. There is a significant gap between GCSE and A-level and leaving out the last three months of study and revision is not the greatest preparation for A-level. For A-level students who are aspiring to go to the top universities, the weaker ones may struggle academically in at least their first year. This is because there is a very wide variation in the way different schools prepared their students for university. I am speaking mainly about before the lockdown, near the end of March 2020, but also during the lockdown as well. Not all students with A grades will have similar academic competence, which has always been the case to some extent anyway. That variation in standard is hugely exacerbated in the grades that were awarded in the summer of 2020.

For young people who just want to go to a university, and for whom it does not matter which degree course or which university they go to, nothing else matter really. They can just chill! Many universities are desperate – mainly the less reputable ones – and any A-level grades or even no A-level grade at all will do. The slight issue is that future job opportunities and career prospects are heavily linked to the university one attends. The course studied matters also to some extent, but it is the reputation of the university that matters most.

For me, I take a philosophical approach, at least some of the time. I think it is fine to want to study or learn for the sake of it, and I think going to university is the best life experience for me. However, not everyone sees the world that way. Getting a good job, being well-respected and rewarded for your efforts and achievements matter more than just being educated. Some people will feel resentful if they are young graduates with a £40,000 student loan and the only job they could get is flipping burgers at McDonald’s or stacking the shelves at Tesco. I used to clean dishes and fill up the salad bar at Pizza Hut in my late teens myself when I was at university, and that was fun. However, I would not have liked to do it for too long. Just keep having the conversation with your son or daughter and make them aware of possibilities, opportunities, options and potential rewards and consequences. There is light at the end of the tunnel and all assessments should be finished by the middle of May or so – leaving plenty of time to chill, as the youngsters say, before September!

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