A question of fairness

The first few weeks of 2022 haven’t brought us much by way of respite from the continuing disruption caused by the Covid pandemic. Indeed the Omicron variant has increased the level of disruption to the education of young people across the UK.

With high levels of infection continuing to affect absence from schools and colleges for learners and educators, thoughts have inevitably turned to the question of whether this summer’s exams will be fair or not. 

But before we go full throttle into that debate, we first need to think about what we mean by fairness. Now I don’t intend for this to be an academic or forensic analysis of what we mean by fairness. Others will be better placed to do this. But we do need to have some basic understanding of fairness to consider whether exams will be fair or not. 

Questions of fairness are often raised about exams – by students, parents and educators. We must first acknowledge that no system of assessment will be perfectly fair. All approaches have trade-offs and all we can aim for is the fairest approach in the circumstances.  

Our beliefs of fairness are particularly heightened in the current circumstances, when so many young people have been affected by the pandemic – both through disruption to their education and the personal impact of isolation or loss.  

It has been tough for all of us, but particularly so for young people. So, when we think about the fairness of how we assess young people we must think about several factors. 

Qualifications are a form of educational assessment that have become the cultural norm in the UK. Questions periodically rise about their value, whether they’ve become harder or easier, or whether they are all needed, but regardless of these issues they have become embedded in our culture and have become the currency for progression into continuing education or employment. They are how we measure what someone knows, understands or can do.  

As a means of measurement, they can’t change what is being measured.  

Assessment, either by exam or by a teacher’s judgement should be measuring the same thing and the means of measurement can’t change an individual’s attainment. A friend once used the analogy that qualifications are like a thermometer – they can measure the temperature but can’t change it. 

So, when we think about the fairness of how young people are assessed, we have to limit ourselves to thinking about the fairest form of measurement. Qualifications won’t and cannot fully address all of the many unequal impacts of the pandemic.  

Carefully designed qualifications can cast light on things like the attainment gap between boys and girls, or learners from different socio-economic backgrounds – but they can’t change them. 

In many ways, some of the questions that have been asked about fairness in recent months are perennial. But here and now we are working with GCSE, AS and A level qualifications that have in the main been designed to be assessed by exams. 

The difficulty is that the pandemic is affecting everyone differently. For some the impact is direct and profound, and for others the impact may be far less.  

For instance, attendance figures tell us that more young people than usual are absent from their place of learning, but these figures don’t tell us much about the learning process: are learners present in schools and colleges, but not engaging in their studies or are learners absent from school, but actively engaged in remote learning with or without access to tutor or parental support? We know that the picture is complex and confused. 

So how should we assess young people this year? 

Many people have different opinions on this very difficult issue. It’s not a simple question to answer and you must look at the options. First a few factors to consider: 

  • Current qualifications have been designed to be assessed in certain ways – so if exams are part of the design, then a move away from them is significant. 
  • As qualifications outcomes act as the ‘currency’ for progression, you must think about the education system as a whole. 
  • Mid-pandemic, when the education system is running to stand still, is not the best time to safely introduce big changes.  

Given these factors, we believe that the only real options are either to proceed with exams, albeit with some significant changes, or (if required) to use a model of teacher assessment – a development of the “centre determined grade” approach used last year.

So, let’s start with the main benefits of an exam system: 

  • It’s a level playing field with everyone sitting the same test at the same time under the same conditions. 
  • It is a well-understood approach – although we recognise that it will be a new experience for most learners this year. 
  • It is delivered by an awarding body promoting impartiality and minimising the workload on schools and colleges – allowing them to focus on teaching and learning. 
  • It motivates learners to do their best and demonstrate their attainment. It’s also a life skill that prepares them to face other stressful situations in life. 
  • In normal years, standards are maintained year-on-year meaning that outcomes are fair to learners past, present and future, and the education system can rely upon the outcomes. 

Let’s now contrast this with the model of teacher assessment – or centre determined grades as we called them in Wales last year: 

  • The approach last year was necessarily flexible and allowed schools and colleges to take different approaches according to their context. This meant that the grades learners received were to some extent related to the school or college they attended rather than solely on their attainment.  
  • There was no single system that could be explained centrally, but schools and colleges were asked to explain how they were going to approach assessment in each subject. 
  • Schools and colleges had to develop and deliver their own systems of assessment, which presented a huge and some would say unmanageable burden for them. 
  • Standards were not maintained and outcomes, especially in AS and A levels, increased in an unprecedented way. This destabilised the education system and led to some universities suggesting that they may introduce their own admissions tests. 

These issues were widely accepted as compromises that had to be made under the circumstances last year – especially where the impact of the pandemic was more consistent across the whole cohort. The points raised above are not criticisms of the sterling work undertaken by schools or colleges, nor are they intended to undermine the achievements that young people demonstrated, but they do show that the questions of fairness are complex. 

If we return to the central purpose of assessment being to measure attainment, then the question of fairness becomes: “What is the fairest approach in the circumstances?” 

We believe that exams provide the fairest approach given current circumstances but recognise that it can’t be a harsh correction to “business as usual” – especially if you consider that those taking qualifications this year have had the most disruption to their education.  

That’s why awarding bodies have made changes to their assessments to reduce what is being assessed, and in Wales, we have followed the same path as our colleagues in England and asked awarding bodies to set standards midway between 2019 (pre-pandemic) and 2021. This means that grade boundaries (the minimum marks needed to get certain grades) are likely to be lower than normal this summer and the approach to awarding grades will be more generous. 

Mindful that the pandemic could take another twist or turn, we have contingency plans in place for teachers to award grades if at any point the situation changes and the Welsh Government chooses to cancel exams because it is not safe to conduct them. 

So, what does this mean for young people taking qualifications this summer? Well, they need to continue focusing on their studies because whether it’s by exam or teacher assessment they will need to be ready to take assessments that measure what they know, understand and can do.  

By Philip Blaker, Chief Executive of Qualifications Wales 

This article was first published in the Times Educational Supplement/TES magazine