Royal Grammar School


All About Exams

All About Exams

It really does all seem to be about exams at the moment. Today members of Year 11 have just finished their mock GCSEs, a significant milestone as they plan their route to a successful set of results in the summer. Meanwhile schools and heads are still wrangling over last summer’s results, and trying to put arrangements in place so that we don’t have so much disagreement next year. 

This morning I gathered with fellow heads from across the region at a SCHOOLS NorthEast event where we were able to meet Amanda Spielman, who is Chair of OFQAL, the government’s exams watchdog. She heard a wide range of, by now, predictable complaints about shortcomings in exam boards’ marking and their subsequent appeal systems. And on Monday I shall be in Manchester, taking one of the boards to a Stage 2 appeal about one A level particular paper where we feel a grave injustice has been done to a candidate.

So is it all a nightmare? No: the headlines understandably generated (and people like me writing blogs like this) may give the impression that the whole thing is in meltdown. OFQAL regularly assures us that some 95% of papers at GCSE and A level are marked correctly and there is no problem with them. I have no reason to doubt that. Trouble is, it’s not a great consolation, if you are one of the 5% of canddiates (or schools) affected. And then we have to do battle.

So what’s the long-term answer? To be honest I greatly fear such grand solutions as creating one monster exam board or only allowing one board to offer exams in one subject. Indeed, I’m in no doubt that there is only one workable solution and that is to reduce the number of public examination papers sat by candidates nationally. 

That means we need to go back to more sampling instead of testing every aspect of the specification; allowing teachers to do more internal assessment; and simply ceasing to demand that qualifications have so many externally-marked papers in any case.

Will it happen? I doubt it. It would require politicians, policymakers and exam boards to put their trust in a vastly increased amount of assessment internally. And there may be an argument that such trust is impossible while schools and teachers are under relentless pressure from government to see exam results rise constantly. Parents would have to trust teachers’ judgments, too: by contrast all of us, including parents, have got into something of a habit of questioning marks and decisions on almost everything, which could make this kind of change  difficult or impossible.

In the meantime, while we wait without a great deal of hope (despite my natural optimism) for a solution to the intractable and continuing problems with our public exams, parents and candidates alike need to trust their school, ensure that preparation is thorough and that chances are not taken, and always have a plan B in case results are not quite as expected. 

Moreover, schools such as the RGS exist and thrive on the trust of parents and students. We deserve and earn that trust, and that situation, at any rate, is not about to change.

Bernard Trafford