• Hannah Gillott

Unpicking the Ofqual Consultation Document

Six days on from the release of the long-awaited Ofqual consultation, the document remains at the centre of much debate and discussion. At 46 pages, it’s a daunting read which raises as many questions as it answers - but as a first look into the Government’s plans for exam classes, there are certainly some useful conclusions we can draw.

Let’s start by summarising each section:

What the grades will mean: This year’s grades are not a prediction. Rather, grades should justifiably reflect the skills, knowledge and understanding students have demonstrated across as much of the curriculum as they have covered - and they should be indistinguishable from grades in previous years.

When teachers should assess the standard at which students are performing: Students need to cover as much as they can in order to progress to the next step of their education, so the proposal is that assessment should happen as late as possible. However, the final grade should include a breadth of evidence, including NEA where relevant.

How teachers should determine the grades they submit to exam boards: Whether teachers use exam board papers, their own papers, or other evidence, in all cases the assessment of a student should be objective and consistent, aligned with exam criteria, and should give every student the opportunity to demonstrate their full ability - while still taking into account and making allowances for missed curriculum.

The assessment period: Once again, the consultation suggests assessments need to happen as late as possible, as close together as possible, to avoid leaks - but there is no clear rationale yet for how the latter can be avoided with papers taken on different days.

The conditions under which students should be assessed: Ideally assessment would happen in school, but if that’s not possible the consultation suggests it can happen elsewhere, including students’ homes - provided exam conditions are enforced and both the student and supervisor sign a declaration afterwards confirming this.

Supporting teachers: Exam boards need to provide guidance to teachers to help deliver objective and consistent assessment, including managing extenuating circumstances, and they should check school leaders understand what is expected of them in terms of processes.

Internal quality assurance: Exam boards will provide schools guidance to help them implement a procedure for consistent assessment and standardisation - schools can work independently or together, but must follow a robust process at every level.

External quality assurance: The onus is on schools to put an objective, robust system in place, backed up by exam guidelines - but exam boards will Quality Assure each approach and verify whether guidelines are being followed consistently and correctly, intervening if they are not.

How students could appeal their grade: Headteachers will likely be concerned by the suggestion that appeals should go to schools first, and are primarily concerned with having someone as unbiased as possible confirm that assessments followed the correct process and showed good academic judgement. Exam boards only enter the process if students and parents remain unhappy with the outcome - and they may charge for appeals. The burden here definitely lies with schools.

Impact summary

The consultation ends with an impact summary which considers the wider implications for schools, students and exam boards in terms of both cost and workload. It repeatedly returns to the idea that the impacts listed are instead of and not as well the processes that would ordinarily happen during exam season. This is particularly concerning for school leaders since it doesn’t seem to acknowledge the notion that replacing one process for another is in itself time consuming.

The timelines proposed are also noticeably shorter than schools are used to - if assessments are indeed left as late as possible, to the proposed end date of early June, this gives schools until mid June to mark, grade and moderate papers, and then to submit marks. Exam boards will then have until early July to conduct their own moderation ahead of results day. No doubt this will have been flagged by many school leaders who have already completed the consultation, but it certainly highlights the importance of both schools and exam boards having a clear strategy in place in good time if these deadlines were to go ahead.

Much can change between now and mid February, when we might expect to hear the outcome of the consultation - but in the meantime, what can school leaders do to prepare?

The importance of process

This is returned to on multiple occasions in the document - the implication seems to be that schools who can demonstrate they have a clear and robust process in place will largely be left to get on with it. Although we do not know yet exactly what evidence is needed or how it should be presented, it is obvious that an element of moderation will be required if grades are to stand up to scrutiny. School leaders should start to consider how this will happen - which local schools follow similar curriculums and might therefore be willing to team up to moderate one another’s assessments? Which key staff need to be involved in this process? Time will be needed to train staff, too - when in the calendar might this be planned in? Flexibility is of course key, but it’s worth beginning to build support networks sooner rather than later.

Auditing the curriculum

We know for certain that, at least for the next few weeks, students should continue to move through the GCSE curriculum and cover as much content as possible. Assessments, too, need to be as broad as possible while allowing for gaps in learning time. There are several questions curriculum and subject leads might start to ask themselves in preparation for the following half term:

  • What curriculum content are you confident students have been taught well in school?

  • What curriculum content has been covered, but will need to be recapped either because of lockdown or because of large numbers of students self isolating?

  • What topics or units will be left until last, and could even be dropped completely?

  • Where are different subject teams up to in terms of NEA? How much time is needed to complete NEA, and can this happen if schools remain closed?

With this information in place, you can start to form a picture of what the assessment schedule might look like further down the line.

Auditing your evidence bank

We know with certainty that schools will need to provide evidence for the grades awarded, and with almost complete certainty that this evidence will be broader than just the results of a single assessment. Although we do not know the granular details of what other evidence could be included, it is worth considering what you already have. This should not involve more work than a brief conversation with Heads of Department or Heads of Faculty to find out some of the following:

  • What papers were assessed in the mock exams (if you have done them already)?

  • How far through any NEA are your students?

  • What data have you collected on in-class assessment, and how accessible is this?

This should not, at this stage, require teachers to collate and submit vast swathes of data on classes - rather, it is an opportunity to build a picture of the situation right now. The key question should be If a student underperforms in the assessment in May/June, what other evidence do we have to justify a higher grade? If the answer is ‘very little substantial evidence’, better to know now when there is time to do something about it.

Communicating the right message to students

The students, more than anyone, will be anxious to know what is expected of them - after all, these grades determine what they will be doing next year, and probably for many years after that. The expectation that they will be assessed on as much of the curriculum as possible means they should certainly be revising year 10 and 12 content, particularly that covered while in school pre-pandemic. In a sense, the usual expectations of year 11 and 13 apply: they should be creating revision timetables; they should be incorporating retrieval practice into their lessons and revision; and they should be attending all their lessons and completing all their set work. Teachers should be consistently reinforcing this message too.

The sands beneath our feet feel as though they are shifting all the time and it might seem impossible to find clarity amidst the mixed messages from the Government, Ofqual, and the media. But there are certainties we can cling to, flags of clarity we can wave, to ensure that our staff teams and our students feel reassured in the direction we are moving. For now, the underlying message is clear: the curriculum is as important as ever, and however the final assessment will look, schools have scope to do all they can to ensure no student is at a disadvantage.

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