Early in my teaching career I was appointed to a middle leadership role in a school in which neither I nor any of my colleagues had sight of any data regarding pupil outcomes. We were totally reliant on our own assessment systems. Though I would like to think that mine were strong I cannot say that I had a good idea of how pupils were doing in other subjects or what might have been appropriate aspirations. I am certain that there was significant underachievement in the school and possibly in my department for that reason.

Thankfully the world changed with the increasingly forensic use of data. By the 1990s school leaders’ offices were adorned with spreadsheets of pupils’ latest assessments and forecast grades enabling schools to support and challenge those pupils who were underperforming and address any shortcomings in the teaching. This was powerful and most certainly a major factor in the improvements in results which could not simply be dismissed as grade inflation.

All of this has been massively undermined by the hi-jacking of assessment in the interests of hyper-accountability. It is reassuring to see quite a backlash in many schools which are trying to seize back control of assessment in the classroom as an integral part of the learning process. The high order skills of assessment have been neglected in initial teacher training and continuing professional development for too long. We need teachers to own and master this expertise.

But there is a big spanner in the works which Sean Harford has highlighted in an excellent  blog building on a recent one by Cath Jadhav of Ofqual which he quotes.

He summarises the problem as follows:

‘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…’  He continues   ‘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.’

He has also helpfully instructed Ofsted inspectors not to expect schools to produce predictions but instead to look out ‘how schools have assessed pupils’ progress and what they are doing to support them to better achievement’. So far so good. That makes absolute sense and the best thing schools can do is focus sharply on students understanding and mastery of the knowledge and skills in that subject.

But I wonder whether the full implications of this have really been understood. Actually I don’t. I know they have not. Read that incredible and absolutely true statement again:

‘none of us yet knows what a new grade will ‘look like’ in terms of pupils’ work’

What then do these qualifications actually mean and what does that mean in terms of all of the government policies which relate to accountability?

Take performance management for example. Headteachers are being held to account all over the country for their examination results and so are teachers. If we don’t know what a grade means how can that be done and how on earth will we know whether teaching, learning or, for that matter our education system as a whole is improving?

Take performance tables and the criteria for coasting schools. Are schools going to be labelled (maybe not by Ofsted) and more headteachers to lose their jobs because they have been affected by the ‘volatility’ to which Sean refers?

And what about employers and providers of further and higher education? Will these grades be of any meaningful use to them? Do they understand this? I fear that many do not and I know that many parents are equally unaware.

Most of the schools I am visiting are highly cautious about predictions and trying their very best to base them on strong classroom assessment practice but they cannot simply ignore them. If qualifications are to open the door to better life chances for young people teachers and school leaders have a duty to aim as high as possible for them. How are they supposed to do that if they don’t know what the grades mean?

Sean makes the rather odd comment that ‘it is impossible to do so (predict) with any accuracy until after the tests and examinations have been taken’. I always thought that predicting was a future facing activity rather than a retrospective one. If qualifications are to be no more than an accountability measure then I fear that GCSE might have been infected with a disease that could be terminal.

Sean’s advice feels a bit like suggesting we switch off our headlights on a dark night while keeping our foot on the accelerator and hoping that we won’t have a car crash. I am fearful.

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