When the education secretary announced in January that external exams would once again not be going ahead this summer, we were all relieved to finally have a decision after so much speculation.

The uncertainty had been challenging; making it incredibly difficult for college exam teams and lecturers to plan ahead and for students to stay focused and motivated.

When the announcement did eventually come on 4 January, we learnt that the centre-assessed algorithm approach had been dropped and that tutors were to be responsible for assessing the grades of their students.

When asked if this approach has "worked", my honest response is that as a college, we have made it work. There was no alternative and no plan B – so senior leaders and staff had to get on with it and ensure that every student was assessed as fairly as possible within the framework set out.

Senior leaders and staff had to get on with it and ensure that every student was assessed as fairly as possible, says Sam Parrett.

There was no easy alternative to cancelling exams. Based on evidence of actual learner achievement rather than predicted achievement, TAGs have given a more accurate picture of learner outcomes than the CAGs.

However, lecturers were suddenly in the unenviable position of having to accurately assess their students’ performance and deserved final grades. This was made more challenging by the disruption of the second lockdown and students having had to engage virtually for many weeks. 

Some students struggled with online learning through no fault of their own. Personal and family circumstances made it difficult for some students to learn effectively at home. But unlike last year when we could consider how the student would have fared had the pandemic not happened – this year we have had to focus on what the student actually achieved, regardless of the disruption.

What followed was a challenging period for everyone. Assessments had to be completed in a condensed period, with students facing multiple assessments at once. To ensure a holistic and fully-evidenced TAG, work had to be rapidly assessed and verified, dramatically increasing the workload for students, lecturers and leaders. 

From centre policies being written and approved to formulating subject TAGs, cross moderation, in-depth quality assurance and final submission – it has been a time-intensive process.

The lack of parity between GCSEs and functional skills exams has also been an issue. GCSE maths and English exams were cancelled, yet the on-demand, functional skills exams were not. This meant that within a class of students, some were being told that they didn’t have to sit exams, while others did.

As well as general confusion, this situation caused wider problems. As a college, how do you meaningfully explain such an inconsistent approach – which once again highlighted the perceived lack of parity of esteem between vocational exams and GCSEs? Many functional skills students have, understandably, felt hard done by and we are working hard to support them with intensive summer schools to ensure they can gain their qualifications. 

Holidays cut short by GCSE results day

In addition, by bringing forward GCSE results day, staff holidays have been cut short. After such a challenging year, this is not the scenario anyone wanted.

In the longer term, we know that whatever the method of assessment, many students joining us from school in September are likely to have gaps in their skills and knowledge, following such a disruptive 18 months in their learning.

We recognise the impact of the pandemic on education and are implementing a raft of measures to support literacy and numeracy for our existing and incoming cohorts. This includes summer schools and more contact time with tutors - to ensure students have the core skills they need to access other elements of their curriculum going forward.  

The impact of the pandemic will continue to be felt within education for several years to come, with the disruption affecting all year groups. As an FE provider, we will be working hard to address the issues, utilising catch up funding as effectively as possible and preparing for ongoing uncertainty.

But rather than debate whether TAGs were "effective", the fact is that colleges have had no choice but to work with them and do their best to ensure every single student has their efforts and achievement recognised and rewarded. And this is exactly what we have done.

Staff and students must be commended for their hard work and resilience in such extraordinary times. We now wait and see what the next academic year brings, but with the confidence that we can and will rise to every challenge to support our students.

This opinion piece by Dr Sam Parrett CBE, appeared in Tes on Tuesday 3 August 2021.


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