The culmination of two years’ hard work for those about to take GCSEs, including my own son, is soon to be upon us. Once the exams are taken, marked and graded, the results will reflect the curriculum choices, planning, teaching, learning and sheer hard work of pupils and their teachers across the land. They will be a source of pride for most and disappointment for some. But whatever emotions they stir, we know that exam grades are only a partial reflection of what happens in a school. That’s why inspection takes into account a wide range of evidence on achievement; it doesn’t just rely on published test and exam data.
We know that there is a much higher level of uncertainty this summer, with the new English and mathematics GCSEs being taken for the first time, as well as the first set of new A-levels. While we know that the national profile of results will be stable, none of us yet knows what a new grade will ‘look like’ in terms of pupils’ work. We also know that there is always more school-level volatility in results when qualifications change.
So trying to work out how pupils will fare, in terms of predicted grades, is even more problematic than when qualifications are well established – and it is a very imprecise science even then.
In short, it’s a mug’s game at times of change in qualifications, and should be avoided. That’s why I have written to all our inspectors in the March 2017 'School inspection update' to ask that they do not request predictions for cohorts about to take examinations; and that goes for key stage 2 SATs as well. I hope this reassures school leaders and teachers that inspectors will just ask how schools have assessed whether their pupils are making the kind of progress they should in their studies and if they are not, what their teachers have been doing to support them to better achievement.
Cath Jadhav of Ofqual sets out the pitfalls of predicting for GCSEs and A-levels very clearly. While English and maths GCSES and some A-levels are the qualifications affected this year, the same considerations will apply to all other subjects in the next few years.
The March 2017 'School inspection update' also explains that, from September, we will be providing inspectors with information about what can and cannot be inferred from this summer’s results. This will be at a couple of different levels: (1) generally how much reliance can be placed on individual subjects to reflect achievement precisely, and (2) how much reliance can be placed on different outcome measures for individual schools. I know that some believe that inspectors place too much reliance on test and exam data, while paradoxically, others criticise us for our judgements not lining up with data sufficiently. I want to assure schools that we will continue to use data as ‘a signpost, not a destination’ for inspection and that our inspectors will come into schools with clear information on what can and cannot be relied upon to even be written on the sign.
I wish everybody about to take tests and exams in the next few months the very best of luck.