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What can teachers tell us about end-of-school-year 2021 exams?

1 April 2021

UK Study Centre spoke with two teachers from leading British public schools about their thoughts on the 2021 end-of-year assessments.

By Vica Granville

With increasing concern over end-of-year exams and how they will be assessed, we decided to interview two teachers from leading British public schools about their thoughts on the matter, and their experiences during the pandemic.

The teachers wished to remain anonymous, so for the purpose of this article we shall call them John Smith and Jane Doe.

 

What did the life of a secondary school teacher look like when schools were closed, and what does it look like now? Is it easier, or does it come with its own challenges?  

John Smith: Both in school and out of school has had its advantages and disadvantages. In school it’s better from a human perspective. We’ve been trained on how to check engagement by circulation and simply looking at students, whereas online it's a bit harder. Sometimes the camera doesn’t work, the WiFi doesn’t work, it’s harder to know if they’re engaged. Having said that, some students at my school enjoyed learning online because they could pace themselves better. When they’re in their own house, they can work at their own speed. So, just in terms of the pace of learning, that is an advantage for some students

Jane Doe: I’ve had the same feedback from students, as you have. Obviously, for us, waking up earlier has been a blow, but beyond that it’s nice being back. It’s nice having your jokes not fall flat on screen.

John Smith: In terms of the pastoral side of things, the care of the students as individuals, that’s very hard to do remotely. It’s not impossible and we still did it, but it’s harder to notice things. It’s also harder to have a private word that sounds informal, because the only way of having a private word is by setting-up a meeting…

Jane Doe: Which sometimes needs to be recorded for safeguarding purposes, which takes the casual check-in element away.

John Smith: So, I would say that, in terms of academics you find a way of making it work either way. In terms of the personal or pastoral element, in school is much better.

 

In a recent letter to the education secretary, MPs expressed their fears that without standardised testing, and external objective marking, grade inflation will skyrocket. What are your thoughts on this, given that teacher assessments replaced a faulty algorithm last year?

John Smith: It’s a tricky one. I think that, first of all, the teacher assessed grades are not done in a vacuum, the exam boards are giving guidelines on how to do them and what evidence to consider.

Jane Doe: Slowly, drip-feeding it to us but they are giving us something.

John Smith: We’re due to have them after Easter. It’s not like every centre will be able to do whatever they want. There will be guidelines that are more specific as to what to consider and what to include in our grades. Obviously, there won’t be as much standardisation as there would be in an exam. Schools have already carried out different types of assessment so far, so even in those terms it’s definitely not as standardised as pre-Covid.

Jane Doe: I think there is also a difficulty where in trying to deal with whatever comes from government guidelines, schools are creating sufficiently challenging assessments – that won’t make a mockery of, say, 2 years of Sixth Form teaching by giving them something that is incredibly easy to pass.

John Smith: Also, last summer was based on the assumption that it needed to look like the year before. So, what the algorithm was trying to do is, in order to avoid inflation, it needed to do something similar to what happened the year before. Which is something that we should be able to avoid this year because we haven’t been told to meet any particular quotas.

Jane Doe: What you need to remember is that everyone involved – schools, teachers, the exam boards – all want to make sure that everything is fair.

John Smith: Again, there’s not an enormous amount of clarity on it right now, but I think that it’s still like last year in as much as exam boards will require teachers to provide evidence to back-up their marking. It’s not a blanket request for everyone to provide that evidence, but they reserve the right to ask for it. I think the preoccupation of teachers doing exactly what they want is...no one would do that, because you have professional integrity but also because you know that there will be guidelines and that evidence may be required from you.

 

Now that exam results are lying on teachers’ shoulders, there’s been stories in the news of parents and students trying to influence teachers to boost their grades. Have you felt this? If so, how do you manage it, and what would you say to parents and students to reassure them?

Jane Doe: I have to say that somewhere higher up than me there’s been a very firm line laid down. I’ve had parents’ evenings with exam classes where nobody tried to say anything. So, whatever has happened has meant that I’ve got no stresses on that front. From the beginning of the year I’ve told my students that they should take everything seriously from the outset. I assume it’s nothing I’ve said to them, but it’s certainly not a problem I’ve had this year...or last.

John Smith: I did not have it this year or last, either. Obviously, I don’t know how universal that experience is but I think that, much like in your case, I think that our senior leadership team at a school level made it very clear that we were doing it in a transparent way. We were doing it by looking at the evidence and that there was no room for swaying teachers. I have to say that no one has approached me or my colleagues.

 

Parents and students are obviously worried about how much school time has been lost. What would your advice be on how best they can make up for lost time, and what can schools do to help – or are already doing?

John Smith: To start with what they’re already doing, this obviously depends from school to school, but at a place like my school, during lockdown we taught all the lessons that we would’ve taught. So, as much as the setting changed, the amount of work that we did was equivalent to what we would’ve done in school. Now, I know that this isn’t a possibility in every school, but in the schools that could do that, obviously, that was something they were already doing to reduce the impact.

I don’t know what more they could do. I think that the problem with some suggestions that were floating around, about making schools last longer – for example the school year going into July – it is unclear, maybe it’s unclear to me, because this obviously clashes with exam deadlines. So, unless the exam boards change when they want exam results by, which doesn’t seem to be the case, then it wouldn’t change when exams happen, which is what I think people are worried about.

Jane Doe: Yeah, and to add to that, we only came back 3 weeks ago and the kids are already exhausted. They are very much in need of April and Easter and for it to not be school. I think that summer, and certainly anyone who’s ever taught the last period of an afternoon will tell you that if that were to be stretched on until 17:30…

John Smith: Oh God, yeah!

Jane Doe: ...that is just futile. So, I think it becomes a matter of working smarter not longer and making sure that there are things that are available. Most kids who are showing gaps I think will be having resources pointed out to them. In some ways, part of the positives from this is, maybe, the slightly further development of online platforms. Students now have access to old powerpoints, there are worksheets, there are help guides, there are all sorts of things that mean that what used to be: “go back and look at your notes, and really hope that you took notes in the lesson”; can be: “if you feel a bit of a gap, all materials are available. Go look at them, narrow down some questions and then come ask.”

A survey conducted by YouGov and TeacherTrack revealed that 46% of teachers felt such a pressure on their mental health that they considered quitting the profession in the last year. Is there any top tip that’s really helped you whenever you’ve felt stressed or worn down by the situation?

John Smith: I think perhaps a certain amount of compartmentalisation. It’s a bit harder not to bring your work home when you’re at home all the time. I know this has been hard for some children as well, not just for us. What I mean by compartmentalisation is resisting the temptation of working through break, or working through lunch. Just because you’re at home you think you can very quickly eat something, and you’re just sitting at a desk so you might as well carry on working. You know, at school there’s a social aspect for the children, there’s also a social aspect for the teachers. I think it’s important to keep the boundaries between work time and home time as much as possible.

Jane Doe: And I think talking to colleagues and even students about the fact that this is a challenge. The fact that it’s fine for it to be a challenge. The fact that we go through challenging times and it’s important to understand that we’re all in this together. If you ask your colleagues: “Anyone else struggling to hand all the reports in?” and someone validates your concern saying that they’re also struggling, it’s a very nice cathartic feeling. Sometimes it’s also talking to the kids reminding them to stop doing tasks after a certain time. Obviously, the lack of boundaries also affects the work that they do. I know that if they were in a real life lesson the teacher would stop a task after a certain time, whether the students had completed the task or not, so as to provide feedback. Keeping those external boundaries on any task, and not going back and trying it after dinner and sending an email at 9pm going: “I didn’t quite understand that.”

John Smith: Go to bed.

Jane Doe: Stop, just stop. Do something fun. Making it clear that this is tricky for everybody and talking to people as much as possible.

John Smith: The best pastoral help that I, personally, have given is during form time, when I would have them air collective grievances of things they were finding difficult. You could see on their faces the: “Oh! So it’s not just me. Other people are finding it difficult.”

Jane Doe: And trying to think about the positives too. I tried every week to ask myself and the kids: “What’s something good that happened yesterday?”; Sometimes that’s: “I had a tasty breakfast.” and sometimes it's: “My puppy was really cute.” and sometimes it’s: “I really understood what was going on in maths.” Making sure that there is a focus on the positives, as well as an acceptance of the negatives, is a good thing. At some point students started thinking very differently. Some thought that everything was going to be great once they returned to school, whilst others thought that everything was going to get worse. One way or the other it’s going to be somewhere in the middle, so it needs to be something where all hopes don’t get pinned on one way out of things, because things are always subject to change.               

 

Your answers there neatly flow to my final question which is: The difficulty for teachers, I imagine, is not only that they have to manage their own stresses but also those of the students. Do you a) feel like there’s been an increase in having to emotionally support students through this, and b) do you feel as though you’ve had sufficient training to handle such situations?

John Smith: I think that the increase is heavily dependent on students. We’ve tended to see an increase in students who enjoy socialising. Without that socialising they’ve felt left to their own devices. Children who work better on their own, I think, were fine. So, for the first part of the question, I would say that it depends a lot on the personality of the student. There was a general increase of anxiety, perhaps, at the beginning when people were adjusting to it, but then, as I said, some people adjusted well to it and some people struggled a bit more.

Jane Doe: I think it’s been helpful to get much wider open line communication with parents. I think that there has been a real increase in parents saying: “This is what my child has been feeling at home, could you be on the lookout for that? Is that something you’re seeing? I want to know how big a deal this is.” and vice versa. I think that’s been a really interesting thing. Obviously, the older you get the more that’s something you can do with just the kids themselves, but there’s a concept that we are nurturing young people through an unprecedented situation and that is going to require as many of us as possible. The “it takes a village” school of thought. I think that’s been a very heartening one.

John Smith: And also, I would say that, from my experience as well, we were having regular meetings as a pastoral team. So, whilst we didn’t really have specific training on it, because I think there might be experts about it soon but there aren't’ really any yet, it was a sharing of approaches, a sharing of concerns with other members of the tutor team and, at that point, you, as a professional, find help there because you see what other people are doing. You get the advice and then go back to your form and say: “We’re going to try this.” So that, combined with parents being more involved has worked well. I’m sure that in other schools it hasn’t worked maybe as much, but where it has worked well, it’s because of that.

 

Because of a collaboration between parent, student and teacher?

John Smith: Exactly.

Jane Doe: Yeah.  


 

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