Show Me How by Clare Morris

The Big Business Of Public Examinations

Covid-19 has changed so many aspects of our daily lives: the way we socialise, shop, travel, work, worship, learn, even the way that learning is assessed.

Before we go any further, here’s some background to the UK examination system to put assessment of learning into context.

GCSEs are the public examinations that 16 year olds in the UK take after two years of study. Many then progress to A level courses and take public examinations in these subjects two years later. The A level grades you achieve determine your final university as universities issue provisional offers to prospective students. In other words, if you achieve certain grades, you are admitted to your first-choice university. If not, you might be able to fall back on your insurance offer; this will be an offer from another university requiring you to achieve lower grades than your first-choice offer. If your results fall short in both cases, then you go through a process called Clearing when other universities review your results and decide whether they can offer you a place in your chosen subject or a related subject. So, as you can tell, A Level results are crucial in making sure you get where you want to go.

Each year, students in England take around 5 million GCSEs, 250,000 AS levels (taken after the first year of A level study) and 750,000 A Levels. Each unit of each exam has an entrance fee. Examinations are big busines – big, heavily-regulated business. Ofqual, the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation regulates qualifications, examinations, and assessments in England. Its job is to maintain standards and confidence in qualifications.

You can appeal against the results you receive but this costs money.  There are different levels of appeal ranging from a clerical re-mark where the addition of marks is checked to a full remark where another examiner remarks the paper or even to a full centre remark which usually involves the remarking of the papers of a selected cohort of students . All of these types of appeal carry different tariffs. Examinations are often made up of different units. When you appeal you have to do so per unit and pay per unit. Everyone is free to appeal but not everyone has the money to do so. It is an expensive undertaking. If your appeal is upheld, you get your money back. If not, you have to reach for your cheque book. Given that some examination boards have an unwritten understanding of upholding the original marks, the decision to appeal is a very difficult one, particularly for parents who don’t have that kind of spare cash readily available or for state schools struggling to balance the books, because of reduction in funding.

This has been the tricky terrain that students have had to negotiate each year until now. And this year, Covid-19 decided to up the ante…

A Level Grades And The Grade Standardisation Algorithm

To guard against the spread of Covid-19, schools were closed and exams cancelled, which created a further problem. How could students achieve their A level grades which would enable them to go to university, if there were no examinations? Rather than using teachers’ predicted grades to determine final results, which Ofqual argued would lead to an increase in the percentage of pass grades (ignoring that fact that if you’ve been teaching students for two years you are likely to know their level of achievement fairly well), an alternative method for generating results was devised – a grade standardisation algorithm. It was designed to reduce grade inflation and maintain grade continuity. It took into account students’ prior achievement and the school’s results in previous years. Students were placed in rank order by each teacher which again had a significant impact on the final result achieved. In devising an algorithm of this sort, an important consideration is which variables are given greater significance in calculating grades.  Any standardisation method makes assumptions about data distribution – and there were a lot of assumptions being made about these students whose futures, it appeared, were being shaped by forces beyond their control.

The result of all of this was that 40% of students’ A level grades were downgraded from the teachers’ predicted grades. A key problem was that the algorithm seemed to favour smaller cohorts and independent schools while downgrading students at larger state schools. Because of this significant downgrading, many students lost out on their first-choice university and their insurance offers as well. Things were looking pretty grim.

Young people were incensed by the UK’s government’s decision-making, particularly that their fate was decided by a computer algorithm. Students and teachers felt cheated  – ironic given one of Ofqual’s guiding principles is to ensure fair play in examinations.

In response to nationwide protests, the algorithm was scrapped, and teachers’ predicted grades were used in determining the final grades. Sally Collier, the head of Ofqua,l resigned and Jonathan Slater, the chief civil servant at the Department of Education, was sacked (although he was due to stand down in 2021 anyway).  But for some students it was too late. Their university places were no longer available.

All of this quite rightly has been given a great deal of media coverage because of its immediate impact on students’ futures and life choices.

Poetry No Longer A Compulsory Requirement At GCSE

There is a further decision made by Ofqual with far-reaching implications. Earlier this month it was announced that poetry would no longer be a compulsory requirement for GCSE English Literature examinations in England. Ofqual apparently had “significant concern” about teachers’ ability to cover all the required topics in the time they have available after the closure of schools during the coronavirus pandemic.

There are myths surrounding the teaching of poetry that need to be addressed.

In response to the news that poetry was going to be dropped as a compulsory element of the GCSE Literature examination, many news reports embraced the ‘poetry is difficult’ narrative with alarming alacrity. The BBC News website, even in an article in which it suggested why poetry should remain, stated

‘Millions of schoolchildren may be rejoicing that poetry can be dropped from GCSEs in England  because of the coronavirus disruption.’

Poetry they suggested ‘has become the stuff of many pupil’s nightmares – analysing the language, form and rhythmic structure of verse, under exam conditions.’

‘Millions’, ‘rejoicing’, ‘nightmares’ – hmm, I sense an issue here. The choice of verb in the first quotation is significant: the modal auxiliary ‘may’ suggests possibility, neatly dodging the need to back it up with evidence… in other words these ‘millions’ are just so much journalistic enthusiasm.

The ‘Poetry Is Difficult’ Myth

The ‘poetry is difficult’ myth was the spoonful of sugar Ofqual used to justify removing it as a compulsory element of the syllabus. Ofqual was apparently doing us a favour. It would make the teaching of the syllabus more straightforward.

But would it? There is a dreadful assumption here that students won’t like poetry because it is difficult. This implies that students only learn things that are easy. Really? There are many who would be insulted by such an assertion, both teachers and students. Subject matter does not have to be easy for it to be enthralling. If something is difficult, it does not make it boring either – a further assumption that needs to be challenged.

Why should level of difficulty be an issue? There is a joy in working through the intricacies of a complex text and in understanding how it works.

What does poetry offer teacher and students? Voices.

It is a source of enormous comfort to read a poem that gives voice to the way you are feeling. As adolescents, unsure of their way in the world, that moment of connection is vital. Someone out there in the huge darkness understands.

Here is another important consideration. Poems are shorter than short stories, plays or novels which means a greater variety of voices can feature in the same collection. Poets from different backgrounds, cultures, perspectives are represented; the marginalised, the oppressed speak and are heard.

And in exploring this array of voices, students find their own.

The Future

If poetry is no longer a requirement at GCSE, what will happen at A level, two years down the line? Will poetry become an option there too?  If that is the case, then Ofqual will have removed a vital strand of literature; the literary scope offered to students in Secondary Schools will become stunted, perhaps irrevocably, as a result.

Ofqual cannot be allowed to contort the delivery of Literature lessons in Secondary Schools.  If not, who knows how far this particular strain of pandemic will spread? Will other countries adopt the same approach by buying into the poetry is difficult narrative? These students are our next generations of poets. We will expect them to look out at the world with fresh eyes and make it known to us in ways that reach deep within.

Ofqual will argue that their decision has been made to help staff and students at a difficult time. Poetry is edgy, it is the language of rebellion, of challenge, of change. Ofqual’s sudden apparent desire to lighten teachers’ workload is surprising. Since when has the government been concerned with that? Surely this couldn’t be an attempt to stifle the voices of rebellion …could it?

Poetry is demanding, it is intricate, it is intriguing, all part of its intoxicating appeal, but it is never ever impossible.

We face an uncertain future with Covid-19 still stalking the land. It might be that further exams will be cancelled. If so, let’s plan for that so that the results student achieve are down to them, not to a computer algorithm skewed in favour of wealth and privilege.

And students, help us out here please. There will be times when texts seem difficult. Never say, ‘I can’t understand this, it’s too difficult’, just ask, ‘Show me how’ and see what happens. The results could astound you.

Good luck – we believe in you.

Clare Morris, The Blue Nib

Clare Morris is a writer, poet and editor for The Blue Nib. She often collaborates with artist Nigel Bird. Clare is currently working on her first novel.

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    • Thank you for reading my article, Denise and for your kind comments. Yes, these are dangerous times but if we’re aware of the implications we can strive to change things. Thanks for your support, Denise.

  1. This explained much I didn’t understand about algorithms used in the education sector, and the ruckus created by UK’s hasty moves and sloppy handling of this- which meant students lost places at universities they were qualified for.
    Poetry tells the truth, stirs emotion, catalyses action, foments rebellion. Poetry allows for dissent, including hating a particular poem. In short, poetry makes people think.
    It is too simple to say the government prefers those who don’t think for themselves, yet that may be the truth of it. It is rather horrible that once more, those with money to pay fees can afford to protest while those without funds, cannot.

    • Thank you for reading my article and for commenting, Felicia. Yes, I agree, it’s a complex issue and needs a longer article to explore its nooks and crannies fully. I’ve always been very concerned about how the appeals procedure works. I’m grateful I had the chance to air those concerns. Thanks again for your support, Felicia.

  2. I don’t question the value of poetry, but I do (sometimes) question our assumptions about the value of schooling
    … perhaps it’s my age, and close encounters many decades ago with Ivan Illich!

    • Hello, Mike, thanks for reading my article and posting a comment. Ah, Ivan Illich, there’s a name I haven’t heard in a while. I started out with ‘Deschooling Society’ back in the day and haven’t looked back since. Thanks again, Mike.

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