Leadership in a Time of Crisis

If a week is a long time in politics, then who knows what a suitable time frame is in education?

It has been an interesting week in education. Amongst the massive backdrop of ongoing COVID challenges and the variety of perceptions, a series of decisions and news items have come through.

First, Wales announced that GCSE and A Level exams would be scrapped for 2021. This has not been universally acclaimed or accepted – and the detail of “teacher assessments” in Spring Term, externally set and marked, feels a lot like exams to many people – but just earlier, with less guidance, and clarity.


Second, a report from the Sutton Trust coincided with the publication of a report from Universities UK on Fair Admissions. This has been picked up in terms of unspecific “post-qualification” programmes – whether offers, or admissions, it’s not clear! – and even discussed as a key priority for “radical change” by Gavin Williamson. Whatever one’s views on the UCAS and application system, and the merits of post- or predicted- applications status – or the role of either of these components in perpetuating or causing social inequality, it’s fair to say that there has been significant debate and discussion on this from a number of places.

Elsewhere, in the chatter, the week began with a quiet free school meals discussion and extension, Julia Hartley Brewer commented on private systems and caused consternation, pre-interview assessments for Oxbridge et al. caused consternation, and new reports continue to shed doubt on the viability of schools staying open in lockdown. NTP information has been released, people have suggested teachers should just work longer. And, this morning, there are rumours of a potential reshuffle, and Education changes.

And yet, it feels like all of this is distracting from the core issues for secondary schools right now.

What are we doing about exams?

While OFQUAL have moderated the content of some exams, for some subjects, there has still been no decision (or even plan for a decision: we’ll announce this on X date would help more than nothing) about the future of the summer series. Elsewhere, more articulate and thoughtful leaders (@StuartLock, @Strickomaster and @bennewmark) have explored some of the challenges of these debates for schools, but I think I’d like to reserve my concern for the leaders of all of this.

It’s an oft-quoted Covey idea that the ladder has to be leaning against the right wall, otherwise every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster. As November gently ticks in to December, and the season of “mock exams” opens for schools at both GCSE and A Level (we still don’t know what a “valid mock” looks like, by the way!), how can we not yet know the plans for the Summer 2021 series yet? There are rumours of regional accommodations, differentiated plans and all sorts – but Nothing. On. Paper. Not a single policy announcement.

How is it possible? As @bennewmark articulated earlier – plans are hard, while ideas are easy. We can’t do this on the back of an envelope – we should have at least learned that lesson from Summer 2020. We need details, timing and even funding to make changes – whether that’s tutoring, hiring more teachers, keeping schools open longer in to summer to accommodate timetables shifting – whatever it might be, we need to plan, communicate that to schools, and thence to our poor students who still don’t know if the paper they’re doing in class will be their ultimate centre-judged grade!

This, to me, is the balance of leadership in a crisis. We have to manage the immediate, fire-fighting demands – and there are many, let’s be honest – with a view to the future. We can’t do everything day to day, and leave the bigger calls indefinitely. Heads and business managers across the country seem to be doing this, and doing incredibly well. I have no idea how they are coping, and what their long term impacts will be – hopefully well-earned holidays in Summer 2021!

But why are we spending Governmental time looking at changes to university admissions for review in 2023, when we haven’t fixed the strategic decision in front of us? We have heard nothing this week on exams in England – but Williamson has taken time to go on record to discuss thoughts about a long way off university equality issue that doesn’t actually solve the problem he thinks it does!

Let’s put the ladder against the right wall, please?


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