Whither England’s Examination and Assessment System

Amidst an ever-changing landscape for schools to contend with, Dr Mick Walker, Vice-Chair of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors, shares his thoughts on the impact of COVID-19 on qualifications and assessments and what this means for the future of the education sector. 


Covid-19 has impacted every aspect of our society, raised previously unseen challenges and highlighted many aspects of inequality. The mass-media has kept us informed of the devastating impact on life and of the genuine humanity of so many people and professions in their response to such adversity. Education has featured widely in the media, particularly in the way schools continued to stay open throughout the national lock-down and provide distance learning to those pupils unable to attend in person. Since September, schools and colleges have opened their doors again to all pupils despite the challenges caused by continued and highly localised outbreaks of Covid-19 and the consequential need for pupils and staff to work in unpredictable periods of isolation.

However, one of the biggest stories around education has centred on qualifications and National Curriculum assessments. And it’s a story of controversy and confusion rather than one celebrating the response of the education system, and one confounded by differing approaches across the UK. In March of this year, the Government was quick off the mark in deciding to abandon examinations and tests: I believe this was the right thing to do at the time. Unfortunately, the decision only served to illustrate how dependent we have become on externally set and marked examinations as the chosen alternative mathematically derived algorithm designed to assure year on year continuity of standards fell short when considered against measures of fairness and equity. To be fair, like Monty Python’s take on the Spanish Inquisition, no-one expected a pandemic and certainly not of this magnitude, so a government of any political persuasion would have struggled to come up with a speedy and watertight plan given our current dependency on external assessments.

But behind the dithering and indecision, what is very clear is that assessments derived from teacher or school-based protocols was the least popular option for either the government or regulator – and this is again the case in the approach announced by the Secretary of State for the 2021 examination and test series. During the summer of 2020, we saw pictures of student protests across the UK with placards held high stating ‘Trust our teachers’, clearly a sentiment not shared by the government or the regulators – but in the end, centre-assessed grades became the only way out of the tangled mess. Nevertheless, we have to ask why trust in teachers’ assessments is not universal – even within the profession itself. There is clear research-based evidence that teachers over predict the performance of their students and that they are prone to bias. Equally, there are differences in predictions that appear to be influenced by school type and between lower and higher achieving groups of pupils. But before getting too carried away with this lack of teacher reliability, we should also remember that examination grades vary between those awarded by principal examiners and their extensive teams of examiners, and variations across subjects. In short, no assessment is perfect, and we need to recognise this.

What wrangles with me however is the position of the teaching profession in all of this: indeed, one has to ask is it regarded or treated as a profession? Assessment knowledge and understanding should be a core and highly developed skill of the teaching profession, not just in terms of supporting examinations, but in the day-to-day transactions of teaching and learning. Sadly, it’s not.

And this is not because teachers are not capable of understanding educational assessment, it’s because they haven’t been shown how in either their initial teacher education or within their continuous professional development. Assessment is a subject in its own right – and not just an add-on that can be covered in a couple of afternoons of instruction or training.

My ambition is to see teachers recognised as professionals in the field of educational assessment, so we are not limited to ‘paper-based’ external assessments. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as much a fan of examinations and tests as I am of teacher-based assessments and my view is that with both we can increase validity by having more tools at our disposal. We wouldn’t allow a pilot to fly a plane because he or she passed a theory test, allow a surgeon to carry out an operation based on a multiple-choice examination or allow folk to drive cars on the basis of passing the theory test.

But, and it is a real but, we have to raise the knowledge base of teachers with regards to educational assessment and we have to demonstrate with robust research backing that it works at least as well as any other form. The Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors (CIEA) has a key role in raising and recognising expertise in educational assessment. Following the A level ‘fiasco’ of 2002 (yes this is not the first time), the government of the day backed a plan to have a Chartered Educational Assessor in every school and college. We are a long way from that goal, but the CIEA does offer courses and qualifications that can build professional knowledge in educational assessment and provide professional recognition. In the short term, the CIEA is bringing forward a Lead Assessor Programme to support schools in their preparations for the 2021 examinations. This will however, provide links to the qualifications offered by the CIEA that can in the longer term build the professional capital of teachers, trainers, lecturers and all of those colleagues who manage and utilise assessment across many industries and areas of commerce: educational assessment is not confined to general qualifications and we have much to learn from colleagues working in other fields of education and training.

We need to take a long hard look at how we perceive and use educational assessment. However, right now, as the government’s plan for 2021 relegates centre assessed grades to the last-ditch option, trust is lacking and that’s a sad indictment of the teaching profession – and the government.


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