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Kirsty Williams made the right call on assessments in 2020 – but her approach in 2021 is a dud

02 Jan 2021 7 minute read
Education Minister Kirsty Williams. Photo by the Welsh Government

Terry Mackie, former Head of School Improvement and Inclusion for Newport Council

In October the (still) President Donald Trump vowed that nobody would be talking about ‘it’ come election results day 4th November.

Trump was malevolently wrong (again) but our own Government leaders might wish he was right. The pandemic is here to stay for at least the whole of 2021.

Vaccination is our godsend, but all political policy is going to be carried out under the gloomy Coronavirus sky for the medium term.

This applies especially to Wales, which has some of the highest Covid-19 seven-day case rates in the world in the south-east.

Parents and teachers are facing some very difficult Covid dilemmas about schools: will they be open at all in January; how best to maximise remote learning when/if they are closed (research indicates online is a poor substitute); how will schools cope with administering pupil Covid testing, and, not least, what about assessments in the summer of 2021?

The minister, Kirsty Williams, has earned the respect of teacher leaders, but she has made some costly errors. She was too slow to bring pupils back to school after the first lockdown, then fell out with some Local Education Authorities and the unions in July and then got it plain wrong initially about GCSE and A Level examinations 2020. She compares favourably with England’s hapless education minister Gavin Williamson, but that’s faintest political praise.

Mrs Williams is risking getting it badly wrong again on ‘examinations’ 2021. These are of enormous public importance. They resonate beyond parents and schools. Last summer the minister just about escaped disaster after listening too attentively to the vested interests of the exam board, WJEC, and Qualifications Wales.

Like others, she was persuaded algorithms could come up with fair outcomes for assessing many thousands of students not sitting exams. She beat a last-minute retreat, some days after Scotland, going along belatedly with Welsh teacher assessments (called CAGs) resulting in 10% grade inflation. She made the right call.



Notwithstanding that close shave, it seems now she has serious regrets about her ‘final answer’ of exams 2020, having announced a convoluted set of assessment arrangements for schools for 2021. Her thinking is back to exams planning based on algorithms, bureaucracy and the precept that more rigorous testing can be fairly managed in 2021.

This is what her current plans are instead of summer exams. There will be a ‘three-pillar approach’:

  • Non-examination assessment (CAGs);
  • Internal assessments that are planned and marked by teachers and lecturers; and
  • Assessments that are externally set and marked by WJEC

Clearly, WJEC will be running the internal and external assessments. They will decide the materials, themes and mark schemes. Year 11 students will have to complete about 18 subject tests overall in two terms (assuming they can actually attend; what happens if they can’t or don’t do these tests?).

Internal assessments are to start on 22nd February. It is likely schools will be closed for most if not all of January. Schools are yet to receive any guidance or materials from on high as we speak. Teachers this term -and next  – will be consumed by teaching key worker children in class and supporting online learning for most students much of the time. The WJEC timetable is not just demanding but unworkable.


It gets worse. Schools are being directed from May 17th to administer WJEC external assessments. Who knows what Covid wave we will be in at that stage? The organisation of these tests -they are just exams by another name -will cause havoc into the summer term.

Teachers should instead be focusing on catching up with the syllabus instead of setting unnecessary external papers that will cause extreme concern to understandably woebegone, confused Year 11s. These will have had by summer 2021 4-6 terms of unprecedented disruption.

What exactly is the purpose and aim of these multiple centrally-directed tests? What value will they add to stand-alone CAGs, eventually deemed fit for purpose in 2020? The minister decrees: “to ensure fairness for learners across different settings….. [and] an approach which offers learners a consistent assessment experience.”

I cannot see for the life of me how compulsory in-class testing levels a playing field that we all know is so differential not only in the country, but within regions, within towns and even within same schools. To imagine ‘fairness and consistency’ can be generated nationally by mandated testing while the learning fields are so horrendously unlevel is delusional. The tests may be fair but the results will be totally aberrant.

A consistent assessment experience (pretty much the same test – it’s an exam!) cannot ensure fairness. It will simply track the extent of the massive gaps in learning across students in Wales. Let’s be honest. The minister is just chasing after some spurious measure of national objective assessment. Proxy-exams. That just cannot be assured in pandemic circumstances.

Mrs Williams’ main concern is ‘the system’ not its people. For her, the system ‘reputation’, mostly compared with England, seems to matter more than fair student outcomes. A repeat of the 2020 exams fiasco is frankly unconscionable but is on the cards.

Keep it simple

Let’s revert to good sense and to what we do know actually works in a pandemic at school level.

This is what should be done. CAGs must be accepted as the best and only rational assessments that can be made in these extraordinarily unpredictable circumstances – nothing else is needed. Teachers in real classrooms must be trusted, as must their senior leaders who make final school grading decisions. As in 2020, CAGs must rule.

There is one overriding condition: individual schools must be directed not to exceed the overall subject grade envelopes of 2020. That is the ceiling. There will be no further grade inflation allowed for 2021. Period.

This is far from perfect (needs must in a crisis) but it is the safest, most student-centred system for sound 2021 attainment outcomes nationally. Teachers must run the show. There can be no time or place for ministerial/exam board control-freakery. KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid).

I am proposing as uncomplicated a set of decisions about replacing public exams for 2021 in Wales as can be managed in and for schools and families. Not for the minister, for ‘national reputation’, WJEC or any other body. We did alright for ‘exams’ in 2020 – so why change? We can easily avoid more grade inflation. CAGs do work; teachers know their students best. They alone can fairly assess actual student learning contextualised by known student potential.

Mrs Williams’ 2021 three-pillar approach is a perfect dud. It would not only add to teacher workload (salt to workload injury) but prove to be all along the unchartered way of the next two terms simply unorganisable; it would, without doubt, be very distressing for too many students. It would not improve consistency but it would multiply unfairness.

The minister should think again and start not just from KISS but from this new first principle: KIRSTY (Keep It Really Simple for Teachers and Youngsters). CAGs@2021, from our trusted teachers, capped to 2020 levels, are the best way forward for everybody involved in what we hope is the final summer of Covid. Nothing will work more fairly than professional school-based CAGs -and there really is no need to gild these lilies. KIRSTY, do the right thing.

Terry Mackie was the former Head of School Improvement and Inclusion for Newport Council. His 2019 book ‘The Slow Learning Country: Out of the dim into the light’ is available by emailing him at [email protected] or by Twitter @terrymac51

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