Can we never go back to A levels, please?

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For me the era of GCSE and A level results is over. That annual stress is a thing of the past, thankfully. But it remains all too familiar to not mention four things.

The first is to offer congratulations to those who got the grades they hoped for. Working as hard as many did in quite exceptional circumstances justified the results. No one would have wished these sixth form years on those getting results yesterday. I also think the absence of other opportunity is an obvious explanation for grade inflation that seems to have been ignored, but which I suspect very real. Work was the substitute activity of choice when there was not much else to do. I am inclined to believe these results more than most do.

Second, I note that private schools saw most grade inflation. And yes, I think that does say those at such institutions did have the most favourable home environments to work in, and all the kit they needed, and so on. But, is that enough to explain the difference? Call me cynical, but I doubt it. When your product is A* results the temptation to inflate is great. That those with identical GCSE results apparently did much better at private schools compared to their similarly qualified state schools peer group suggests that there is something amiss here. It is essential that this be investigated.

That is because, thirdly, this system is working. Yes, I know it produces a slight bias to girls because continuous assessment always seems to, but overall I have a strong preference for coursework being the basis of educational assessment simply because in the real world we do not work in exam conditions so why demand that performance in that arena be the basis of appraisal? I have reflected this in my own teaching work at university, where I have resisted exam based appraisal.

And fourth? I suggest that we maintain this move to teacher appraisal now. Why would anyone now want to go back to the tyranny of exams when there are now better options? As education needs to be reappraised anyway, given the inevitable changes in the way that we live and the demise of so many supposed careers that is now inevitable in the face of climate change, what is the point in retaining the hierarchy that maintained them? Let’s be much more realistic about the skills people need. Let’s allow them to work in ways they clearly prefer. And let’s let their effort rather than their ability to control short term memory under the stress of exam nerves shine through.

Sometimes crises produce good outcomes. If education changes for the better as a result of Covid there will be at least one silver lining.