GCSEs and A-levels 2021: Has Wales passed the test?

This week is an unusual results week for many reasons. Not only did Welsh candidates receive a report of their provisional results several weeks ago, but the traditional exam hall was replaced by a more flexible system that depended on schools and colleges taking the lead in determining how to assess the grades their students had attained, using a range of recommended methods and tools from the exam board.

As Children’s Commissioner, my role is to ensure that young people receive their human rights across many areas of their lives. This includes rights to be supported to achieve their full potential through a broad educational offer, rights to equality and non-discrimination and rights to health, including mental health. The need to safeguard those rights in the face of a global crisis, has been brought to the fore over the last eighteen months.

So, in extraordinary times, with more twists and turns than the box-sets we’ve all been glued to in our spare time over the last year, what grade will we award Wales as a government and society on the system for qualifications this year?

Let’s start with the young people themselves. In my view, they’ve been remarkable.

My team and I have kept closely in touch with young people through our large surveys, our school and community ambassador groups, our casework service, and the brilliant work of our young people’s advisory panel. The panel’s 47 members from diverse backgrounds have engaged with me throughout the pandemic to provide balanced advice and everyday experiences. While I remain hugely concerned about inequalities of experiences according to family income, ethnicity and disability, young people have done an amazing job of adapting and building new skills like independent self- directed learning, following changing expectations in relation to restrictions within schools and managing the constant anxiety of being asked to isolate with no notice. Our survey results show that this appears to have taken a greater toll on those in the age groups receiving results this week than on others. On top of this, many have led on social movements like Black Lives Matters, resisting the exams algorithm last August and campaigns against sexual harassment.

Negative talk of grade inflation risks dismissing the huge learning curve they’ve been on and the skills and resilience they’ve developed in this period, while ignoring the inbuilt inequalities of much of the pre-pandemic exam system.

Schools and colleges next. They too were plunged into the steepest learning curve of Heads’, principals’ and classroom teachers’ lives. They’ve dealt with providing childcare as well as education, responded to trauma, illness, fear and bereavement amongst the whole school community and had to act as public health protectors at all hours of day and night. Widespread examples of staff visiting, providing materials to, and supporting children they were worried about, have been largely unseen by the general public. In only a few months, the profession transformed their provision to include online and distance learning and innovated at pace to develop new pedagogies to enable children to keep learning.

Then came the new exam arrangements and although it definitely took its toll, the main message I heard from the profession was that they would do whatever it took to ensure their students got fair results.

What about those responsible for the exams system? Here there is a triad of the exams regulator: Qualifications Wales, the exam board; the WJEC; and the Minister for Education and Welsh Language.  Here, my team and I have concentrated our greatest scrutiny.

Just like education providers and young people themselves, those governing and regulating qualifications had to deal with an emergency situation for which they had no preparation or prior experience. They, too, have been on a steep learning curve and there have been positive developments over this academic year. My team and I have been in almost weekly contact with Education officials and I’ve been clear with Government about the need to protect young people’s rights as a new system was planned. In one of a number of letters to the then Education Minister, I wrote in August last year setting out the need to plan for whatever the coming year would bring to make sure young people had a fair and equal chance to achieve their qualifications. The Casella Review, to which I contributed, brought home how fairness, adaptability to the twists and turns of the virus and, above all, a young person-centred system was vital. The Education Minister, wisely in my view, tasked a group of school and college leaders to design a system to meet those goals, and this group did expressly consider the views and experiences of young people as part of their approach. Qualification Wales also worked with my office to develop a young people’s advisory panel and to ensure their communications were more young-person friendly, which was a positive development, and I was convinced in my meetings with them that developing a system that was fair to different groups of learners was central to their thinking for 2021.

The resulting system had many advantages over 2020, including an appeals system, arrangements for private candidates including home educated young people and an opportunity for schools and colleges to develop the assessments that were fair to their learners’ different experiences over the year. There were definitely flaws, especially the sheer volume of assessments that emerged quite late on for candidates and their teachers. This meant that many young people experienced a summer term that was very heavy in assessment, which in itself limited opportunities for continued face-to-face learning.

There was never going to be a perfect system developed, and we wait to see whether this year’s results favoured some social groups more than others, but we need to remember that the usual qualifications system is also not perfect. It rewards candidates with particular types of academic skills and confidence, as well of course those whose family resources give some young people more opportunities to develop their talents and skills, and more confidence to reflect these in exam performance.

Overall, I think Wales has passed the test of ensuring that as many of our young people as possible could get their qualifications this year. As happens every year, some young people will be disappointed, but I hope that they, and the adults around them, remember how much they’ve learned and achieved, that they will carry with them for life.

We need to be proud of our young people and how they’ve responded to these difficult two years.  We need to make sure all young people and their teachers feel confident that we value the hard work that these qualifications represent. And, we need to make sure that every young person has support to progress in the next stage of their learning or experience

Adaptations have already been planned for qualifications in 2022 to recognise the issues that candidates will have faced this year. It will be important for our young people to have early information and reassurance about this. I’ve heard from numerous year 12s and year 10s about their worries about being ready for exams in 2022.

The big question remaining is what’s next for qualifications in Wales, especially in the light of our new curriculum? How can we build on the pandemic learning to develop a fair system that encourages continued learning and development rather than narrow exam preparation? How can we move away from a system that makes some young people feel like they are failing to one in which every young person is able to progress and their achievements are valued? That is the next test that Wales will have to pass.