England & Wales Covid-19, Education and children's services

2021 school examinations and fairness

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The Children’s Commissioner for England published attendance figures (15 December 2020) which highlighted very large variations from area to area. These will have been heavily affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and its variable effects across the country. Whilst full details for the examination cohorts are not available, the overall picture shows that this is an extremely difficult year for many schools. It also shows that the greatest difficulties are in more deprived areas and that disadvantaged pupil groups are more likely to be affected by poor attendance.

The Children’s Commissioner has consistently argued that schools should remain open, but this blog is focused not on this debate, but on the impact on examinations and assessment. It was clear before the year started that it was going to be difficult and that pupils were going to arrive at the public examination period – which for 2021 has been delayed in England – having had radically different opportunities to learn. These very same equalities issues undermined the 2020 examination results, and a statistical procedure was eventually deemed insufficient to account for likely pupil achievement. In the end, teacher assessment was used despite government misgivings.

It seems likely that current arrangements will not stand up to the pressures of public expectations for support in making progress for young people, any more than they did last year. Headteachers, teacher associations and other bodies have argued for a more supportive regime that allows teachers and schools to support their pupils appropriately. It has been argued that advance notice and time is required to ensure that arrangements are robust even if the examination system cannot make up for the known unfairness for pupils who have lost much schooling this school year.

If the government is unable to hold its current position on exams in England, and the Scottish government is unable to hold its position on highers in Scotland, when will further changes be announced, and how long will teachers and schools have to absorb and implement new arrangements, bearing in mind the added pressures and problems brought by the pandemic? Recent announcements from the UK government about making more lateral flow tests available in schools will help, but will they remove the existing problem of large inequalities in attendance and learning opportunities? Will we have to wait for another last-minute u-turn from Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Secretary of State Gavin Williamson?

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