After two years of cancelled exams, school will return to normal after the vaccine, right? I’m not so sure

Reinstating GCSE and A-level exams once the pandemic is under control will be easier said than done

Peter Lampl
Wednesday 10 February 2021 13:07
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GCSE and A level exams replaced by teacher-assessed grades

“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” Winston Churchill once said when discussing how the conditions of the Second World War allowed for the formation of the United Nations.

This simple insight has echoed down through the decades since, but it surely resonates now more than ever.

While evidently not a global conflict, Covid-19 has, with extraordinary speed, rolled over any number of the world’s sacred cows in a way that was previously unthinkable. Life as we knew it has been thrown up in the air – and we’re yet to see where everything is going to land.

Commuting to the office every day, flying at the drop of a hat, Tory governments being fiscally conservative are just three pillars of the “old normal” that may not return in the new. To that list I believe we should add our exam system.

It is, frankly, extraordinary, if one stops to think about it, that two summers of GCSEs and A-levels have simply gone up in smoke as a result of Covid-19. As recently as 12 months ago such an idea would have been unimaginable, and many are no doubt horrified that such action was ever allowed to happen, but now we must turn our minds to what next.

Many will assume that if the vaccine sees off the worst of the pandemic then GCSEs and A-levels will simply be reinstated from the summer of 2022. But I’m not so sure.

Such a move is much easier said than done, for two very different reasons. Firstly, it will be very hard technically: the distribution of grades, as was, had a dependency on using previous cohorts’ results, and the absence of two sets of data will make any reinstatement problematic.

Secondly, many among the year group facing the prospect of the return to GCSEs and A-levels will no doubt, and with good reason, plead that such a move would be unfair to their prospects, not least of all because they too will have missed out on significant chunks of schooling. And that’s even before you consider the consequences for this cohort of any attempt to put the huge grade inflation genie back into the bottle.

Changes to how exams are decided are 'shambolic', says Keir Starmer

All of which nods to the possibility of a complete reset of the exams system.

Many have long-argued, myself included, that the exam funnel that sees a range of GCSEs at 16 narrowing to three or four A-levels at 18, and narrowing again to just one or two subjects at degree level, represents way too much specialisation way too early. It is also worth remembering that GCSEs were originally conceived as general leaving certificates when compulsory education ended at 16 – today it is 18.

Surely we should have an education system that encourages a broad and balanced approach to learning, one that allows for students to keep studying as many disciplines for as long as is possible. The rest of the world would seem to agree. Wherever you look, from France and Germany to the US and China, you find a broader and more balanced baccalaureate-style model of school-leaving certificate taking in at least six or seven subjects.

The same arguments also stand in higher education. It is frankly daft that young people pick, as early as 15, just one subject to study through a three- or four-year university degree, a decision with major repercussions for the rest of their lives.

Much more preferable is the liberal arts model of undergraduate study so prevalent in the US. This very popular approach allows for students to study a broad range of subjects in their first year at university before beginning to think about the disciplines that they want to focus on as they progress. As a Harvard professor said to me: “Our students learn a little about a lot of things and a lot about a few things.”

There are any number of reasons why reimagining our exam system won’t happen, not least of all the many vested interests in maintaining the status quo. Another reason is that as a society we have a deeply ingrained conservatism, which manifests itself in a deep attachment to the so-called “gold standard” of A-levels. It was, for example, this last issue that scuppered Tony Blair’s plans to dramatically reform post-16 education.

But surely now is the time to reject these brakes on progress. Surely we can do better by our young people once this horrendous pandemic is defeated: this is a once in a generation opportunity to reimagine our out of date exam system. The prime minister, famously an admirer of Churchill, was right when he said Covid represents an opportunity to “build back better”. We should take him at his word.

Sir Peter Lampl is founder and chair of the Sutton Trust

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