The return of teacher-assessed grades now looks inevitable
Ask any teacher, pupil or parent: absence from Covid is putting a huge strain on schools at the moment. Recent figures show that in both primary and secondary schools, sickness absence has been higher this term than any time since September 2020, and in secondary schools sickness absence has increased by two-thirds compared to last year. In Oxfordshire dozens of schools have partially closed, with the majority citing ‘exceptional levels of staff sickness’, and this seems to be the case across the country from Basingstoke to Chester to West Bromwich.
Things are likely to get worse. Covid case numbers are already highest among 5-14 year olds, and in October the ONS estimated that one in twenty secondary school children had the virus. While the government has decided to put all of its eggs in the booster basket, this is hardly going to affect school students, as the majority are still unvaccinated. We know that Omicron is even more transmissible than Delta, and studies predict a ‘major wave’ in the coming months. Just this morning Health Secretary Sajid Javid warned that “there was no guarantee schools would stay open”, a sentiment echoed by Education Secretary Nadim Zahawi.
In schools there is already a sense of exhaustion, dread, and, most worryingly, deja vu. All signs seem to be pointing in the same direction: the return of teacher-assessed grades.
I sincerely hope that I am wrong. I believe that teacher-assessed grades put teachers in an impossible position, and the huge (unpaid) workload of marking all the extra internal assessments is nothing short of exploitative. We have seen from the last two years that cancelling exams inevitably leads to rampant grade inflation, and puts pressure on universities who are oversubscribed and have over-promised places. And yet it feels inevitable. If the experts are right and we see a million cases of Omicron by the end of the month, then this will cause chaos when students return in January, especially as close contacts of Omicron also have to isolate. Furthermore, even if staff have their booster jabs by the end of the Christmas holidays, there could still be mass staff absences with positive tests.
Even if the government vows to keep schools open at all costs, some schools inevitably have been — and will continue to be — more disrupted than others. For example, sixth formers at Stantonbury International School and Oxford Spires Academy were learning remotely last week, and many other schools are imposing their own ‘circuit-breakers’ in virus hotspots. These regional inconsistencies and closures are dangerous because they not only widen existing educational inequalities, but they will also make pushing forward with GCSEs and A-Levels increasingly untenable given that the playing field is already so horribly uneven.
Even before Omicron there was an underlying nervous unease around examinations; teachers were collecting evidence ‘just in case’ and pupils talked about the need to take mocks extra seriously. Now the mood has darkened further, and whether we like it or not, what was once a possibility now seems like a near certainty.