GCSE exam results day is a milestone; marking the passage from one phase of education to the next. It also, for those not attending a sixth form attached to their secondary school, marks the end of time spent with classmates, teachers and siblings in a school environment that has come to feel like a second home.
As a secondary school teacher, results day is also important to me. It offers me the chance to celebrate with children who have achieved what they never thought possible, and offer reassurance to those who are disappointed. Although the day sits towards the end of the summer holiday, when it would be nice to be relaxing on a beach somewhere sunny, I have only missed one results day in my time as a teacher, and only then when I was recovering from a stay in hospital.
2020 was due to be no different. My honeymoon was booked, and built into it was a quick trip back to school to see my colleagues and send my exam classes on their way with a set of results that, I hoped, would reflect their hard work for the past two years.
On the 18th March 2020, the government made an announcement that would change schools as we knew them for the rest of the academic year. On site school provision was closed to the majority of children; remote systems for learning and safeguarding were to be quickly established, as was safe on site provision for those still attending. Perhaps most strikingly, all GCSE and A-Level exams for the summer were cancelled.
Schools across the country were asked to submit a predicted grade for children in years 11 and 13, which, we were told, would then be used to support the formation of a ‘calculated grade’. The calculated grade would take into account not only teacher predictions, but also prior attainment at key stages 2 and 3, school prior performance and school improvement.
Algorithm and controversy
Less than 2 weeks after the closures were announced and exams were cancelled for summer 2020, Gavin Williamson, the secretary of State for Education wrote to the head of Ofqual; insisting that calculated grades “should ensure, as far as is possible, that qualification standards are maintained and the distribution of grades follows a similar profile to that in previous years”. Through the spring and summer followed a staggering level of controversy and media coverage surrounding what grades would be awarded, how they would be calculated, and what the most fair way to do this was.
Following the release of English A-level results in mid August, where over 39% of grades were lowered by at least one grade when the algorithm was applied, there were student protests. The media reported mass concern that the awarded grades were not reflective of the outcomes students may have achieved if exams had gone ahead.
Under increasing pressure from the public, the Government announced on 17th August, only 3 days before results were due to be released that GCSE and A-level students would be awarded either their centre assessed grade, or their Ofqual calculated grade, whichever of the two was higher.
How was results day different this year?
Amid all the controversy and worry about grades, it is easy to forget that schools have also been planning for the logistics of a socially distanced results day. Some held entirely remote results days, with grades being emailed to students in the morning, others offered students the opportunity to go into school to pick up their grades in a socially distanced way.
Either way, results day was very different to what we all expected at the start of the school year. I cannot help but wonder what impact these changes had on the student experience. Does not being able to hug your best friend as you both open your results envelope make your success less enjoyable? Does missing the opportunity to finally thank your teacher make your celebration feel less real? I certainly hope not.
My school made the decision to offer our year 11 cohort the choice of coming into school to collect their exam results under strict social distancing, or have them emailed home. To keep numbers low and safe, the day was staffed entirely by leadership teachers.
Though I could not be there to see my students receive their results like I would have any other year, it strikes me that exam cohorts this year had already proven themselves, maybe more so than any other cohort for a generation before their grades were announced.
They have borne the loss of rights of passage such as proms, end of year assemblies and even exams themselves. I believe I speak for many teachers when I say that I could not be prouder of the exam classes I taught this year, results day or no results day.