In her keynote speech at the Westminster Education Forum event this week on England’s exam system, OCR Chief Executive, Jill Duffy, outlined the lessons learnt from 2020 and OCR’s priorities for the summer ahead. OCR has adopted a set of principles to guide us through the process of awarding grades this summer. Teacher and student wellbeing are the top priorities, Jill told the audience.
Jill praised teachers for their resilience and warned this was something we can’t take for granted: “One lesson we can draw from last summer is that teachers adapt quickly to change and are prepared to go the extra mile to do right by their students. The last year has been relentless and exams, or the lack of them, has only been a small part of the burden.” The first principle guiding OCR this summer is the physical safety and mental health of students, teachers and everyone in schools and colleges at all times. She recognised what had already been asked of teachers and students, and the busy months ahead. This leads to OCR’s second principle of deliverability and simplicity for the awarding process this summer. Exam boards must provide clear and accessible advice and support she said: “At OCR, colleagues are working flat out to provide what teachers need as early as possible.” This took her to the need to work collaboratively and transparently – our third principle – and noted the criticism from the Education Select Committee about a lack of transparency in 2020.
She addressed the issue of lost learning, recognising that some students have missed out on a great deal of schooling through no fault of their own, and that the most disadvantaged may miss out most, echoing the concerns of the Social Mobility Commission. Transparency links to OCR’s fourth principle – that assessment should be as fair as possible. Jill highlighted the need to adopt consistent approaches for vocational qualifications and general qualifications, as well as ensuring access to assessments for all students and the importance of giving students agency.
The final principle is progression, wanting all students to be able to progress to the place they aspire to, and she acknowledged that additional support could be needed to fill gaps. Jill asked for honesty in recognising there may be a small number of young people who may have lost so much learning that it will be difficult to award them a grade at all. They may be ill prepared for their next steps, and she spoke of summer school and retaking a year as possible solutions: “We need to provide whatever it takes to give these young people, who will be in the minority, the chance to catch up.”
In her wide-ranging talk, Jill also addressed the current debate about the future of assessment that have arisen due to COVID, including calls to scrap GCSEs: “GCSE and A Levels have longevity and have value because they have evolved and adapted to the changing education and social needs over the past 50 years. They can evolve again, driven by the very best evidence about quality,” she told the audience.
Jill ended with a plea to consider young people’s mental health in our thinking about the future of our curriculum and assessments: “We need a system that acknowledges the fragility of the well-being of so many of our young people, not least because of the impact of COVID and so we need to ensure that future approaches are as supportive as possible.”