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Wales’ exam results – trust matters

August 17th 2020

Wales’ 2020 exam results raise questions about trust as well as grades.

The shock, dismay, anxiety and anger that last week’s A level results have caused is entirely understandable. Nobody likes to hear that they have done less well than they had hoped, still less see their future unravel because of a missed grade.

But the issues that this year’s debacle raise are much deeper than student X having to go to Manchester instead of Bristol, or even – perish the thought – go through clearing.  They bring into question trust in our examinations system.

There will forever be a bad smell around 2020’s results, whether they were exactly as teachers predicted, lower or even higher. The seed of doubt about the accuracy of the results has been sown: it could linger for a long time in the minds of teachers and learners for many years to come.

Loss of trust really matters.

GCSEs and A levels are far from perfect, but they are at least a method of independently and transparently assessing a student’s ability. You can argue about whether an examination is the best method or whether what is measured is useful, but the process itself has been – and should be – fair and objective.

In a normal year, students answer the same questions, on the same day, with the same amount of time. Their answers are marked according to agreed criteria, by people who don’t know the student (or their school), and the marks are double checked and sometimes moderated.  It isn’t perfect, but the system has the confidence of teachers, students, parents and employers alike.

Raise the spectre of blanket adjustments of results, so that they reflect a school’s past performance, and not an individual’s achievements, and confidence collapses like a house of cards.

Indeed, the Welsh Minister for Education has announced that predicted grades will now replace the moderated results, precisely to maintain confidence. 

Despite this, the risk is that the exam system joins a growing list of other institutions which are no longer trusted, including politicians, banks and financial institutions, the media, advertisers and more.

Does this matter?

Yes. Trust in institutions is fundamental to a healthy, functioning democracy. Our public institutions need to work for the public good not their own self interest, be fair and honest in how they work, and not be corruptible. The UK is already on a slippery slope.

According to the respected Edelman’s Trust barometer, Britain is at its lowest ever position in a global table of trust among the mass populations of 28 countries. Only Russia is a less trusting society. It also reveals that more than half of British people say they are losing faith in democracy as an effective form of government.

Without qualifications that actually mean something, there is no way of assessing an individual’s ability or potential – unless an employer can deploy a battery of ability tests, or unless you rely on friends and networks to vouch for someone. And we all know how that might work.

What should be done?

There is an immediate imperative to award this year’s A level and GCSE students with fair grades that reflect their achievements over their two years of study. They need to get on with their lives, at least reasonably content that they’ve not been hard done by.

But schools, teachers, examining bodies, regulators and governments need to do much more – they need to make sure that the public and students trust the system to be fair and to reflect their individual efforts in the future.  That might mean much greater transparency in how examinations are assessed and grades awarded.

It also almost certainly requires a mega apology to the class of 2020 for an almighty mess up.

Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation


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