How do you make exams fair? It’s a challenge that has vexed the greatest education minds for centuries. But never have so many people thought so hard about this question than for national school examinations in 2021.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson last week spoke about putting “fairness into the system” as he unveiled a package of measures for GCSEs and A-levels in England. The measures include advance notice of exam topics, exam aids, and more generous grading (in line with that for 2020). All are justified for pupils who have suffered widespread disruption in the wake of the pandemic. Not least it will provide clarity for teachers about what lies ahead next summer – and for over a million stressed teenagers currently in the midst of their mock exams.
But in my view the biggest question of fairness remains unresolved. How do we recognise the extra learning loss experienced by some pupils, particularly those from the poorest backgrounds? Covid-19 has exposed the stark social class divide that lies outside the school gates. Reduced schooling has left the world an even more unequal place.
The solution I’ve advocated is a one-off special flagging system alongside exam grades in 2021 to identify a minority of pupils who have been most seriously affected by Covid-19. Pupils would be given a star next to their exam result if schools judged that their grades were lower than they would have received had the pandemic never happened. Universities, colleges and employers would take their extenuating circumstances into account when judging the grades.
This individualised system would help to address the problem of local variation in learning losses. Schools, year groups, and individual pupils have been affected differently by local outbreaks and regional lockdowns. It would also recognise the educational divide exposed by the pandemic. Many children from poorer homes have struggled to learn in cramped and crowded conditions, without computers or the Internet, let alone help from private tutors.
Research I’m involved in has documented the inequalities that have opened up during Covid-19. Children in the north of the country were less likely on average than those in the south to benefit from full school days during partial school closures. Private school pupils were twice as likely as their state school counterparts to benefit from a full education. Research from across the world is revealing significant socio-economic gaps in achievement.
Contextualising exam grades moreover would boost the social mobility efforts of universities. For many widening access professionals, the holy grail of fair admissions would be accessing the personal background data on students. All universities currently have is the crude proxy of students’ home postcode areas. Individual data would enable them to target extra pastoral and academic support for the students who need it.
Critics of contextualisation worry that judgements are prey to subjectivity, inconsistency and unfairness, threatening the credibility of the exam system. But a flagging system does not alter gradings; it simply provides extra important information about students’ backgrounds. And this year, more than any other, behoves us to level up education’s grossly unequal playing field.
The exams regulator Ofqual has said it is giving the idea careful consideration. Schools could go through an agreed process for identifying exceptional learning losses for individual pupils highlighting any disruption at the regional, school or class-levels. Stars or flags would be added to student records and shared with parents or carers. Headteachers would sign off the records. Guidance would be needed on how to make fair judgements, and some form of moderation process introduced.
The Education Secretary meanwhile has confirmed that an expert group will look into this proposal when assessing the uneven impact of pandemic on pupils. (Incidentally I hope similar scrutiny will be applied to the outcomes of teacher assessments in Wales and Scotland.)
My fear is that without special consideration, poorer pupils will fall further behind in 2021. It’s also true that exams shouldn’t be seen as some panacea to educational or societal inequalities. But as the footballer Marcus Rashford has so admirably argued, we need to recognise the profound disadvantages crushing the lives of too many children across the country – the same children who won’t have powerful parents of politicians fighting their corner as the contested battles continue over exam fairness.
Lee Elliot Major is Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter