Allowing students to move on with confidence

Published 27th March 2020

Taking control in a crisis

I should open this by stating quite clearly that what I am about to write has not come directly from any official source; I don’t have any inside knowledge from Ofqual, the DfE or the awarding organisations. What follows is an amalgamation of thoughts, items read, and observations based upon conversations that I have held over the last couple of weeks, almost 12 years as a headteacher and over 20 as a senior leader in schools.

These are challenging times, no one of us has all the answers, we have never been here before and are therefore learning and adapting as we go.

As schools closed last week, my heart broke a little as I scanned social media to see school leaders and teachers state just how difficult they had found that last day in school. For the vast majority of students, a school is a place of security and safety, it is each student’s right as a young person to complain about their school, but I have found over the years that while students reserve the right to moan, woe betides anyone else that dares to speak badly of their school. Last week brought an abrupt end to normality for so many students, rituals that they thought lay ahead vanished and with just enough time to say a quick goodbye to friends and teachers, the school gates closed.

This week has seen schools scramble with various degrees of efficiency to get work online for their students. Many schools have invested time, energy and precious finance in creating online platforms over the years, for these schools the transition has been almost seamless with teachers using Google Classroom and other online systems to maintain contact with their learners. Other schools have found themselves behind the technological curve, suffering from a misguided belief that the need to present learning in formats that suit a generation of students born into a digital world was an indulgence for others, but not for them.

With the announcement that GCSEs and A Levels were not to run this summer, thoughts turned immediately to just how the authorities would ensure that students received grades that allowed progression to the next stage of their life, while at the same time ensuring fairness and maintenance of long-established standards.

For almost as long as I have been in education (and that is a long time my friends, I am very old), teachers have argued that an assessment system over-reliant on a terminal examination does not suit the natural learning style of every student and can diminish teacher professionalism. Teaching to the test, in my eyes anyway, is schooling; not educating, but can quickly become a logical outcome from an exam led system.

With that in mind, this is not the time for teachers to step back from the line. With two months to go before students would have been leaving us anyway for study leave and examinations, there will not be many teachers who could not accurately predict the grades that they anticipated for the students in their care. The system needs to round up and smooth out results nationally, but in most cases, no one knows each student’s potential and ability better than their teacher.

So how should Ofqual calculate student grades? (again, for clarity, in my opinion).

Grades need to form from a range of data available to teachers and schools:

  • Most students will have sat at least one mock examination, I accept that there will be variance nationally depending upon when this was taken, how much credence it was given by students etc., but it provides one marker.
  • Teachers keep ongoing records of student progress; that's how we complete parental reports, compile predicted grades etc. These ongoing grades can provide accurate trails of each student's progress and where there may be gaps in knowledge acquisition.
  • The NEA will be at various stages of completion in schools across the country. Still, from this, teachers can use the syllabus guidelines to predict a mark that would have been achieved for this work if students had been allowed the luxury of completion.
  • We have all learned from last years’ experience in completing this new qualification. Statistics consistently demonstrate that results tend to rise nationally in the second year of teaching any qualification as teachers learn, improve and adapt to the requirements of the syllabus, this can be factored into any calculations using last year’s results as a guide.
  • Finally, we need to rely on colleagues to check our judgements and compare it against performance in another class or another school. This self-moderation improves us professionally and guards against any bias that may unconsciously emerge.

In summary colleagues, own this! Don't sit waiting for someone to tell you how to assess your students, take the initiative and start gathering the information that you will require in order to make informed judgements.

So, what would I be doing now?

  • I would not be allowing students to continue to work on the NEA at home. Firstly, because the rules have not officially changed, and only supervised work is permissible on the NEA. Secondly, the only fair way to use student grades for the NEA is to stop at a point (when the schools closed) and use this as a baseline for predictions for all schools nationally. Thirdly, you need to have the evidence at hand to inform your judgements and to risk letting it out of your sight is to risk losing it forever.
  • Take photographic evidence of everything that cannot be backed up digitally; prototypes, models, rough sketches, the lot! We don't know what we might need so collect everything that might form the basis of a mark.
  • Gather your mock results together and work out ahead of time any issues that may arise from this (students who missed it, students who underperformed based on home circumstance etc).
  • Gather any other assessment data that could usefully inform your judgement. Internal test data, practical observations, trial contextual challenges; anything that helps you to accurately predict what grade the student may have achieved under normal circumstances.
  • Work out a system of internal moderation and who you are going to use to assist you with this task (probably digitally as face to face will be unlikely).

With all this to hand, set yourself a timetable to have a set of predicted grades to hand no later than the first week back after the Easter break.

Be careful of unconscious bias; there is a tonne of evidence out there that clearly indicates that we tend to underestimate students from specific social sectors, genders, ethnic backgrounds, the noisy, the shy; the list goes on. Your predictions should be evidence-based, remove the individual and mark the work.

It is natural to be concerned in times such as these, but I, for one, trust your professionalism. I know that collectively we have the wherewithal to predict grades fairly and ethically. Remember, there will be an exam set in every subject towards the end of the year; students not happy with their grades will get an opportunity to take an examination.


I am sharing this as I firmly believe that in times of crisis, calmness comes with ownership and control, we believe in you, you have this! I hope this helps.

 Tony Ryan

Chief Executive

Design and technology Association

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