25 Oct 2021

"We need a system which rewards our students for what they can do, not which rations success and ensures failure."

I was very pleased to speak to the motion at the NEU Conference, which called for radical change in the way our pupils are assessed, as it is something that I feel passionate about.

Newspaper articles outlining assertions by Ofqual that numbers of students receiving top-grades will fall this year, show just how perverse our system is.

What a dysfunctional system we must have when says we're going to decide the number of you who will get certain grades before the examinations have been sat. The number of top grades will fall, irrespective of how well the cohort do.  

So many things desperately need to change.  

We need to end the high-stakes exam only view of education. We have shown through the pandemic that we can plan and execute a varied range of assessment methods, which allow all children to flourish.  We can bring about fairer and more reflective grading through moderated teacher assessment, which helps to reduce the inbuilt biases and discrimination which affects many groups in formal examination only systems.  Moderation within and across schools, across authorities can ensure our assessment systems can meet the needs of all children and ensure parity and fairness between institutions.

These are not new ideas.  The Tomlinson Report in 2004 made significant proposals which, if implemented, could have created a fairer system, more creativity, a reduced dependence on formal examinations, more vocational courses amongst other things.

Unfortunately, governments have continued to ignore the proposals ever since, and have in fact moved in the opposite direction.

We need to look again, and move away from norm-referencing (where the results fit a pre-determined curve) and towards criterion-referencing (where students gain grades by meeting required criteria, i.e. the results are dependent on how well they actually do).  A system which rewards our students for what they can do, what they can create, what they can achieve is something we should fight for, rather than a system which rations success and ensures failure.

We have argued for many years that the current examination system discriminates against many groups of children, is particularly difficult for children with SEND, has cultural biases, class biases and the one-size-fits-all approach leaves many of our students behind.  The algorithm fiasco, where students GCSE and A-Level results were downgraded across the state sector, but boosted in many independent schools, lifted the lid on what many of us have known for years, how rigged to the core our system is, the inherent unfairness, and it rightfully aroused a huge level of anger in our students.

So when we are looking at our Value Education, Value Educators campaign, pressing our view of education has to be central to that.  When we think about the sterile Exam Factory education system that we are being fed, with unmanageable content levels, high stakes examinations exacerbating a mental health crisis amongst our students, we know there is an alternative.  Let's fight for a fairer system, a more creative, innovative and liberating system for educators and pupils, a genuine pupil centred pedagogy for all, including a fight for genuine teacher assessment.

Chris Denson is a school teacher and is elected on to the National Education Union's National Executive.

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