The Case For Exams

2 November 2020. Updated 11 November 2020.

by David Mackie

The prospects for A-levels, GCSEs, and their Scottish equivalents in 2021 are uncertain.

The Government has, to date, insisted that summer GCSEs and A-levels will take place in England, subject to a three-week deferral of the start of the timetable and some minor adjustments to the content of some syllabuses.

In Northern Ireland, the plan at present is for A-level, AS, and GCSE exams to start one week later in 2021, but schools have been told to keep evidence of pupils’ progress in case it is needed as part of ‘contingency arrangements’. There will be some changes to examinable course content in some subjects, mainly at GCSE level.

In Scotland, Education Secretary John Swinney announced on October 7th that National 5 exams would be cancelled in Scotland in 2021, to be replaced with teacher assessments and coursework, but that Higher and Advanced Higher exams would go ahead, with a delay of two weeks to the usual timetable.

As for Wales, it was reported on October 29th that the independent review panel set up by the Welsh Government had recommended that all exams in 2021 should be cancelled; the Welsh regulator Qualifications Wales had recommended that GCSE exams be scrapped, but that some A-level papers be scheduled. Welsh Education Minister Kirsty Williams is to announce a decision on 10 November.

At present, then, prospects for saving examinations in Wales already look dim. But even the more robust approaches adopted in other parts of the UK could easily change. If lockdown has taught us anything, it is that no statement made by our political masters is immune from reversal without warning, no matter how strong the preceding assurances that it represents decided and unchangeable policy.

The recent revelations in the Spectator about Government planning based on SAGE’s ‘reasonable worst case’ scenario raise, once again, the terrifying prospect that various restrictions on trade, travel, and social interaction may continue well into 2021, and the Prime Minister’s announcement of a new lockdown on October 31st has only deepened the gloom. And although the administration’s aim seems to be to keep schools, if next to nothing else, open, education continues to be needlessly disrupted, as a result of the policy of mass testing combined with guidance to schools which, whether it is interpreted over-zealously or more reasonably, is already leading to fortnight-long absences from school on the part of increasing numbers of (perfectly healthy) students and teachers.

Such absences feed, in turn, the ever-present desire on the part of teaching unions to give their members (recipients of an average 3.1% pay rise this year) an excuse for not doing the teaching for which, at some point, they presumably claimed a vocation.

Calls by teaching unions for major changes to, and/or the cancellation of, 2021 exams were already being made even before the 2020 results had been issued. More recently, it was reported on October 27th that the Northern Powerhouse was seeking the cancellation of summer exams, on the ground that attendance by teachers and students in the North West of England had been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. And the NEU is now calling for a closure of schools during the lockdown announced on October 31st.

The greater the disruption caused by the Government’s coronavirus policies, especially the misguided policy of mass PCR testing, the greater the danger to exams will be. In this context, the case for exams must be robustly made and repeated.

The presumption in favour of exams

A-levels and GCSEs are established elements of a venerable national education system that was, and to a large extent remains, the envy of the world. The value of the rigorous and objective methods of assessment that it employs is liable to be under-rated by the UK public, precisely because we regard it as normal. Familiarity with our system leads us to take its qualities for granted, and most people adopt a casual attitude to the importance of these standards, if they even think about them at all. Their view would be rather different if they were better informed about the systematic inadequacies and corruption that infect secondary education in many other countries. Much education in Russia, for example, is of an excellent standard; but a Russian certificate of secondary school education is an essentially worthless document in the rest of the world.

Moreover, GCSEs and A-levels are part of a broader integrated educational system, including university, vocational, and technical qualifications, which works insofar as standards are maintained at each level. To take just one example, A-level syllabuses in the sciences set the standards for first-year university work: university syllabuses depend on students’ having acquired the prior knowledge and understanding in their subjects as expected and defined by A-level course specifications. But the system works only if the standards are maintained, so that students awarded a given A-level grade can reasonably be expected to have achieved the associated level and depth of learning required for higher study.

This is not, of course, to say that our system is perfect. Far from it: our system suffers from inequalities in the quality of educational provision, many of which are linked to socio-economic inequalities; UK standards of basic literacy and numeracy are a disgrace, compared with those of some other nations; and schools (especially in the public sector, but even the independent sector is not innocent) waste unconscionable quantities of time and energy on fashionable but politically partial initiatives (for example, regarding gender and ‘identity’) that have no legitimate place in education.

As to standards in assessment, however, our system is excellent: it is respected within the UK, and commands a strong international reputation – hence the large numbers of international students not only in our universities, but also in our secondary schools. It is true that expectations have fallen noticeably over the years in many subjects; the briefest comparison of A-level papers with their counterparts from thirty or so years ago is enough to confirm this. But the fairness and objectivity of the system, and the comparability of the results that it yields, is rarely, if ever, questioned.

There is, then, a basic presumption in favour of preserving the system as it normally operates.

The cancellation of 2020 exams

Against this background, students and others were wronged, in multiple ways, by the Government’s decision to cancel summer exams in 2020.

The principal offence was that the decision denied students the opportunity to earn genuine, objectively-assessed qualifications by sitting exams and thereby proving their academic attainment. But other aspects of the wrongness of the Government’s initial decision have received less attention.

First, the timing of the announcement, on March 18th, was disastrous and foolish, because of the entirely predictable damage that it did to education in the succeeding weeks. Even if the Government suspected in mid-March that exams might need to be cancelled, any rational teacher with concern for students’ progress would have advised that the announcement be delayed. That is because, as anyone with the faintest understanding of what it is like to be a student knows, the prospect of exams is one of the most powerful stimuli to learning.

My heart sank when I heard the announcement, which I knew would be an instant disincentive to my Upper Sixth students: it would make it far harder for them to make further progress in the normal way. The final few months of A-level courses can in many cases be the most valuable, for it is in this period that students, having covered the individual elements of the syllabus, can make important intellectual strides forwards. This is certainly true in my own main subject, Philosophy, for in consolidating their learning through revision, students often identify and properly appreciate, sometimes for the first time, the way in which ideas and arguments studied in one area of the syllabus complement their understanding, and suggest new lines of approach, in other areas. It is in these final weeks of the course that students most often achieve a deeper understanding of the subject as a whole, form well-reasoned opinions of their own, and start to make the step from being students of Philosophy to becoming philosophers.

For students expecting to sit A-level exams in 2020, the unnecessarily early timing of the announcement wiped out, at a stroke, most of the educational value that might have been gained from the remaining weeks of the Spring term and all of the Summer Term – amounting to almost one-sixth of a Year 13 student’s A-level experience.

The way in which the Government rushed into the decision was also cowardly. Our concern was with social distancing; and it did not seem obvious that examinations (at that stage almost two months away) could not be held in conditions that respected the requirement for such distancing. (The image that comes to mind when one thinks of examinations, after all, is precisely one of students who are uncharacteristically separated from one another, being seated at widely-spaced desks.) And it was already known by February, if not earlier, that children were less susceptible to, and less adversely affected by, SARS-CoV-2 than adults and especially the elderly.

The Government’s undue haste to announce the cancellation of exams was manifest in another way too: the announcement was made without any accompanying announcement about how (if at all) grades would be awarded – doubtless because no plan had yet been formulated. Accordingly, on 18 March, students were left asking their teachers what the consequences would be for their qualifications, and with them their prospects of progressing to the next stage of their lives; and teachers could do no more than offer their best guesses.

It was admittedly not hard to guess what the likely substitute would be, since the realistic options were so few. Even so, the willingness to cancel exams without having an alternative plan spoke of a worrying casualness about the importance of maintaining educational standards, and a disgraceful lack of concern about the predictable psychological effects on the students affected. There was contempt, too, for teachers, in leaving them to deal with the psychological consequences without arming them with facts that might have reassured students; and contempt for universities, whose admissions system depends on the secondary school examination system, and which were left equally in the dark.

The uncertainty was resolved by the introduction of a system of ‘centre-assessed grades’ (‘CAGs’) – that is, grades submitted by schools on the recommendation of teachers and departments, who were required to rank students within each grade, for the purposes of the intended moderation of CAGs by Ofqual. Unforgettably, however, the decision was made on 17 August to instate the unmoderated CAGs in place of the moderated ones, largely as a result of the storm of popular outrage, part real and part confected, that followed the release of the moderated grades.

Why centre-assessed grades won’t do

My position, in support of the normal administration of exams, and with normal (2019) standards applied to assessment, invites an obvious objection: Why can’t we once again use the system of CAGs that we used in August 2020? Wouldn’t that in fact be a better system, especially in circumstances in which so many students’ education has been needlessly disrupted by lockdown and other Government measures introduced in response to the perceived COVID-19 threat?

To answer that objection, I need to review the summer exams fiasco of 2020, and say things that were more or less unsayable in the midst of the popular outpouring of support for students that, at the time, excluded all dissent. (Of the journalism that I read at the time, only Toby Young’s piece in the Spectator on August 22nd exhibited the courage required to say anything approaching my own scepticism about the rightness in the circumstances of Williamson’s U-turn.) My view will not necessarily be a popular one; but I hope that, with the passage of time, it has at least become socially possible to advance it. With exams under threat once again, we need a calm and rational assessment of the inadequacies of both of the ‘solutions’ that were proposed to the problem caused by the cancellation of exams. It is only via such an assessment that we can understand what was really wrong with the decisions made by education ministers in the UK earlier this year, and why we must avoid repeating these mistakes in 2021.

The almost universal consensus in response to the school examinations fiasco of 2020 seemed to be that the Government’s U-turn, involving the adoption of unmoderated centre-assessed grades, represented an acceptable solution to the crisis. It isn’t so. My personal view was that, having put themselves in a situation in which GCSE and A-level results were inevitably vitiated in one way or another, Ofqual and the Government should have united and stood their ground. That view may still be unacceptable to many; but is not essential to the present argument. What is essential is the recognition that the substitution of unmoderated CAGs was a solution with a heavy cost, in a host of ways. For this reason it was little better, if better at all, than the system of Ofqual-moderated CAGs; and it was at least arguably worse. The relevant choice, therefore, is not between moderated and unmoderated CAGs, for the truth is that neither represents a remotely acceptable way of generating qualifications. The only reasonable option is real examinations.

Failures of fairness, grade inflation, and the devaluation of results

Gavin Williamson’s U-turn on August 17th, following that of his Scottish counterpart John Swinney on August 11th, was executed in the name of fairness. (Identical decisions were made by the Welsh and Northern Irish administrations, and on the same grounds.) The decision to instate unmoderated CAGs was taken because of the perception that, under the Ofqual-moderated system and the corresponding systems in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales, many students had been awarded grades lower than those that they deserved. This was exacerbated by the concern (whether real or confected, and whether justified or not) that the system of moderation had adversely affected state schools more than independent schools, and students from relatively deprived socio-economic backgrounds more than the better-off.

But if the aim was to reduce unfairness, it was not achieved. Any unfairness in the results generated by the Ofqual system of moderation was replaced by not fairness, but only by a different unfairness. Some schools will have submitted assessments of their students’ likely results that were far more optimistic than others. A B-grade student at a school whose teachers responsibly, professionally, and dispassionately recommended that she be given a B will now have lost out, relatively speaking, to similarly able (and indeed weaker) students at schools whose teachers, however well-meaningly, were more optimistic and less realistic in their assessments. No doubt teachers know best, as the popular slogan at the time had it: indeed, it would be worrying if a student’s subject teachers did not know, better than anyone else, the student’s strengths and weaknesses in the subjects taught. But what the protestors with their ‘Trust our teachers’ placards ignored was that it obviously does not follow that CAGs represent an objective assessment of what grade the student would actually have obtained had they sat the exams. CAGs are inescapably subjective, and naturally prone to distortion (especially in an upward direction), for obvious psychological reasons. This remains true, even if teachers act in complete innocence, and without any intention to inflate their students’ grades. Essentially, we tend to think about what a student could achieve on a good day; we tend to underestimate how often exams days turn out less well then they might have done; and, without dishonesty, we tend to avoid predicting the most pessimistic outcomes when we know that our predictions constitute data that will contribute to the grades awarded to people whom we know and about whom we care. The unprecedented grade inflation in 2020 caused by the adoption of unmoderated CAGs is all the proof that anyone could need of this.

The point is that, without the objective measure that real examinations would have provided, no method could adequately control and correct such distortions. The Ofqual algorithm, flawed as it may have been in some ways, had in its favour that it at least represented an attempt to do so; the capitulation in favour of unmoderated CAGs meant that the issue was simply swept under the carpet.

The staggering and unprecedented grade inflation (for example, in England, the percentage of A-level students gaining A* or A rose from 25.2% in 2019 to 38.1% in 2020) that resulted from the use of unmoderated centre-assessed grades was entirely predictable, and was in fact predicted months in advance; the Ofqual system of moderation was a sincere and candid attempt to avoid it. Such grade inflation is deeply undesirable for obvious reasons: not only does it devalue the grades awarded to the entire cohort; it also creates a further unfairness, in that students from other year-groups will not be competing on a level playing-field with the generation of 2020 school-leavers. (A declaration of interests: my two sons are due to take the bulk of their A-levels and GCSEs in, respectively, 2021 and 2022.)

We can already see some of the effects of the latter problem, in the form of demands now being made by teaching unions and others to allow, deliberately and artificially, a significant degree of compensatory grade inflation in 2021, on the ground that it would be unfair on the 2021 cohort to revert to 2019 standards. Needless to say, such a move would not cure the problem, but merely extend it, while simultaneously undermining the integrity of the system that is one of its greatest strengths.

Arguably, there is a further unfairness of which all of the 2020 leavers are now victims, in that, to some extent, all grades awarded in 2020 will, in the eyes of employers, be devalued in relation to grades awarded in earlier years. (If you were an employer with two otherwise indistinguishable candidates for the same vacancy, one with A-level grades from 2020 and one with the same grades awarded in 2019, which would you reckon the safer bet?)

Desert, disingenuity, and the triumph of emotion over principle

The problem, however, is not just that the U-turn failed to achieve its aim of ensuring fairness. The decision to endorse unmoderated CAGs has wider consequences that are no less unwelcome.

By capitulating to the demands of those who challenged the system, the Government taught a cohort of students that if they wail loudly enough at merely perceived, unproven, injustice, higher powers will step in to put things ‘right’ for them. We have taught this cohort not resilience and self-reliance in the face of unprecedented challenges, but simply to blame others, toss out some allegations of discrimination, and kick up as noisy a fuss as possible.

At the same time, both the Government and the media pandered to a distasteful sense of entitlement on the part of school students, who were unquestioningly supported in regarding themselves as ‘deserving’ their results, in virtue of the work that they had done. To suggest otherwise became a heresy more or less overnight; but the truth remains that, strictly speaking, no student whose exams were cancelled in 2020 deserved his or her results. That isn’t how the system works. The way the system works is that you earn your results by passing the exams.

The more accurate way to describe matters is to say that those who worked hard and to good effect put themselves in a position from which they were well-placed to earn their results by sitting the exams. But in a system in which grades are awarded on the basis of examinations, the hard-working do not deserve their grades any more than the idle but gifted.

If this were not so, we should routinely need a system of moderation in which raw marks were adjusted by reference to the effort invested by the student in achieving them: a system that intentionally penalised the gifted. The established system – rightly – does not work that way: it is, instead, a system that rewards both natural aptitude and hard work. The way it achieves that is by assessment; and the true state of affairs is that a student earns his or her grades only by passing the assessments. Everything else is a preliminary, which may or may not stand the student in good stead for the assessment, and which may or may not be to the student’s moral credit. You may not like it; you may prefer another system; but that is the reality of the system of examinations that we employ for the vast majority of A-level and GCSE subjects and their equivalents in Scotland.

That is, perhaps, a harsh lesson, but that these should be the rules is the price that we pay for having a robust and valuable system of qualifications.

I run the risk, in saying these things, of appearing unsympathetic to students in their justifiable anger about the exams fiasco. Nothing could be further from the truth. To make these points is not for a moment to dismiss the value of the hard work doubtless done by many students, and it does not diminish in the least my complete sympathy with the students affected, who were, as I have said, grotesquely wronged by Government decisions. My point is only that the ways in which they were wronged must be characterised correctly and with precision.

Students were not robbed of their grades by the Ofqual algorithm. This is because they didn’t already possess them, and it is both a conceptual and a legal truth that one cannot be robbed except of one’s own possessions. Nor were they even deprived of grades that they deserved; for one deserves one’s grades only if one has sat the relevant examinations. What students were cheated of was the opportunity – to which they were entitled as a matter of legitimate expectations based on the entire previous history of the educational system (including the maintenance of the examination system even in wartime) – to make use of their hard work, or their innate talent, or a combination of the two, to earn those grades. And they were thereby deprived of the opportunity to obtain qualifications that were not devalued by absurd grade inflation and by what will be an enduring suspicion that the grades that they were awarded do not reflect genuine achievement.

Devaluation of the entire system

In addition to the wrongs done to students, the exams fiasco devalued not just the qualifications awarded in 2020, but the system of school qualifications as a whole. Why? Because to be content with such a cavalier, flip-flopping, approach to the award of qualifications, in which a principle repeatedly insisted upon by Gavin Williamson in statements made on August 13th, 14th, and 15th (“No U-turns, no change”) was abandoned in the August 17th U-turn for the sake of avoiding popular discontent, is incompatible with the view that the qualifications are of real value. Can one conceive of an analogous approach to the award of a professional qualification such as an HGV licence, or a licence to practise surgery? Of course not: to do so would be grossly irresponsible. The same would apply to any assessment or certification with consequences of importance – a credit check before the issue of a loan, a DBS check before the appointment of a teacher, and so on. If A-levels and GCSEs are different, and can be awarded – and then re-awarded differently four days later – in the absence of satisfaction of the normal criteria, it can only be because the relevant authority’s view – and remember that we are talking about the views of the Education Departments of the constituent nations of the UK – is that A-levels and GCSEs don’t actually matter.

The U-turn and the award of unmoderated CAGs therefore served one purpose only: the manoeuvre silenced what threatened to become a relentless wave of summer dissent, fuelled more strongly by emotion than by rational evaluation of the options. In other words, it was probably the smart political move for the Government to make at the time. But the decision was nonetheless wrong, because it was motivated entirely by politics as opposed to reason. It was an unedifying example of abandoning matters of principle in the face of the strident demands of popular feeling; and accordingly it came complete with the embarrassing, insincere, but politically-obligatory apologies on the part of the ‘offenders’ for the ‘distress’ supposedly caused to the ‘wronged’ that have become a depressing hallmark of the age.

As to matters of genuine importance, the affair was a disgrace. It created new injustice in the name of justice. It devalued the qualifications of the entire 2020 cohort of students. With no notice, it caused an administrative nightmare for universities already dealing with the challenges of teaching and accommodating new students under COVID-19 restrictions just a few weeks before the start of the academic year. It distorted university entrance figures in 2020, with inevitable knock-on effects for subsequent years.

Among longer-term effects, it has created unacceptable uncertainty about processes, standards, and the comparability of results across years. It has impeded the ability of schools to assess the quality of their teaching (a factor vital to Sixth Forms such as my own which trade, in part, on their value-added rankings) by undermining the reliability of the principal baseline measure (GCSE results) of incoming students’ abilities. And it signalled implicit contempt for the entire system of examinations and qualifications in this country.

No alternative system of moderation will do

I have argued that the use of unmoderated CAGs was no better, and was arguably worse, than the system originally proposed of CAGs moderated by Ofqual. It may seem that I am missing a third option: a system of moderated CAGs using an improved algorithm – one without the perceived unfairnesses of the original.

This is not a realistic option. The most powerful objection to the Ofqual system can be summarised as the complaint that it renders the student’s grade, in what should be the assessment of an individual’s performance, subject to those of other students whose performances ought to be irrelevant to that assessment. Individuals’ grades were adjusted to reflect the performance of other students at the same school, but in other year groups.

This is importantly different from the normal dependence of an individual’s results on the performance of the rest of the cohort taking the same exams in the same year. In order to ensure comparability of awards across year groups, raw marks are routinely adjusted in relation to grade boundaries, on the implicit (and reasonable) assumption that each cohort, taken as a whole, is of the same ability as any other. Such adjustment is necessary and justifiable, given that exam questions must vary from year to year, and that examinations in any subject are therefore inevitably ‘easier’ in some years than others. Accordingly, it is not a principle of our system that a student’s grades are awarded solely by reference to the intrinsic quality of his or her answers. That there should be an element of relative assessment, in which an individual’s grades are affected by the performance of others, is an established and entirely justifiable part of the process.

Nonetheless, the protestors were right insofar as they based their objection on the observation that the application of the Ofqual algorithm was importantly different: it meant that results were adjusted by reference to the performance of students in other years, and specifically those students who had attended the same school. There is indeed an important difference between setting grade boundaries within a given spread of results by reference to the performance of the whole cohort on the one hand, and assessing the likely performance of a given student by reference to the performance by students at his or her school in previous years on the other. The former practice is fair, and justifiable for the sake of comparability of results from year to year; the latter is much more dubious, even if a safety net in the form of an appeals system is in place. It was this feature of the algorithm that linked Ofqual’s grade adjustments, arguably unfairly, to a student’s residence and socio-economic demographic, and which ran the risk of treating students in rapidly improving schools unfairly.

The problem, however, is that it is impossible to see how any system of moderated CAGs could avoid the risk of such unfairness. On what basis would any plausible system of moderation work, if it did not take into account a given school’s previous results? Any algorithm for the selective adjustment of individual students’ grades must run on some objective, factual, data that determines whether a grade goes up, stays the same, or goes down. But there are no objective data that could not be challenged as being irrelevant, in the individual circumstances, to a given student’s likely performance. Even if the data in question concerned, exclusively, the student’s own previous performance, for example in GCSEs or in mock exams, a student could complain, and with justice, that (s)he had changed in the interim, and would have performed significantly better by the date of the cancelled examination.

Renewed use of CAGs can only lead to greater distortion

My case against the use of CAGs is mainly based on moral considerations, and on the need to protect the integrity and reputation of our education system. But a final point against a second use of CAGs in 2021 is a pragmatic one. Consider the seed that the August U-turn will inevitably have sown in the minds of teachers. Whatever assurances may be given about the details of any future system of moderation, teachers will know that there is at least a small chance that the Government will choose, or be forced, to endorse unmoderated CAGs, if the exercise is repeated in 2021. The consequences for grade inflation in such circumstances do not bear thinking about.

Effects of the current uncertainty on teaching

Nor is even that the end of it. The current uncertainty about whether and how examinations will be administered in 2021 is arguably already damaging teaching and learning in schools.

Some students are currently being advised by some of their teachers (though certainly not by me) that every test should be treated as if it might contribute to their final grade. This approach is understandable, given that teachers do not know whether exams will take place at all, nor what data they may be required to submit in support of their estimates of students’ aptitudes and attainment, in the event that grades are awarded on some other basis. But living under such a threat is not good for students’ psychological well being, and it is not good for their learning either.

This explains, too, why the solution to the problem cannot be to replace exams with continuous assessment. Even if such a proposal did not lead to grotesque grade inflation (as in France this year, where continuous assessment was used, as an emergency measure, in place of baccalauréat examinations, and the pass rate increased by over 13% from 2019 to 2020), it would merely reintroduce the problem that marks awarded – like CAGs – would be awarded by teachers, and would therefore be liable to unfairnesses resulting from non-uniformity of standards and unintentional subjective bias.

In any case, such a system is less good for students’ education than a system based on final assessment by independent examiners. One of the most valuable aspects of a system based on final summative assessment is precisely that it assists learning, by allowing students to take risks, explore areas beyond the syllabus, make mistakes, and learn from them. A system of purely continuous assessment would discourage this; worse still, it would make teachers their students’ examiners. To provide the best service to students, teachers should be their students’ aides, guides, collaborators, and encouragers – not their final assessors. Relationships of trust and collaboration between teachers and students are essential to good teaching, and they are much harder to create and maintain where the teacher is the examiner.

The best argument, indeed, for a system like ours that is centred on a final, summative, assessment in the form of examinations is precisely that it allows everything else that the teacher does to be formative; for it is in formative education and assessment that real academic progress is made. Assessment must be formative, if it is to be of educational value; and that is why the summative assessment – the one that determines the grade awarded – must be the final assessment.

Exams are the sole solution

The cancellation of summer exams and their replacement by CAGs did students a grotesque disservice, and it would have done so with or without Williamson’s U-turn. The decision negatively affected not just the cohort of 2020 students, but those in other years, as well as universities. It was an error which must not be repeated. No plausible alternative system of moderated CAGs is likely to be possible; nor is continuous assessment a reasonable solution.

In making the case for exams to be held in 2021, and to be run according to 2019 standards, I do not wish to downplay the unfairness that has already been created by the closure of schools and by the continuing and unnecessary measures requiring healthy students to miss face-to-face schooling for prolonged periods in self-isolation.

But the cancellation of exams, and/or a deliberate downgrading of standards, is not the solution. The sole solution is to insist on proper assessment via exams, and thereby give certainty to students, schools, universities, and employers, and to protect the national and international reputation of our education system as a whole. I do not oppose certain adjustments to examinations, such as the availability of choice, which could mitigate the effects of the loss of schooling suffered disproportionately by some students. But we must have exams.

David Mackie is Head of Philosophy at d’Overbroeck’s, Oxford

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