How do we ensure assessment is fair?


How do we ensure assessment is fair?


Principal of Bellevue school Ealing Independent College, Allan Cairns, explains how the college approached the national changes to assessments this year with fairness and balance in mind.

Following the chaos of Centre Assessed Grades and the catastrophic effects of ‘the algorithm’ in summer 2020, and with exams being cancelled this year in January, Ealing Independent College was faced with somewhat of a conundrum: how are we going to approach the determination of grades this academic year?

Advice from the Department for Education was sketchy at best. Teachers’ judgements, based on ‘a range of evidence’ was the ambiguous recommendation. This has prompted a number of different approaches from schools and colleges up and down the country. 

How and how much do we assess? 

How much assistance do we give candidates in the assessment process? 

What do we use to form the range?

Having such freedom to choose how we would approach this task, I decided quickly, in consultation with Bellevue Education Director David Williams, that we would have to be as rigorous as we could, and base our decisions on as much evidence as possible. It was important that we didn’t lose sight of our role:

  • to fairly reward students for their hard work, effort and ability across their subjects

  • to prepare our GCSE students sufficiently for further study at A Level

  • to prepare our A Level candidates for their university courses.

This meant that we had to ensure that students would be assessed on the entire syllabus, and that we would have to assess this accordingly.

In late February, the aforementioned broad guidance was finally given. The advice indicated that schools and colleges could, in a sense, assess whatever way they liked to find their Teacher Assessed Grades, using any means they felt best to identify the right award.

This focused my mind on the task at hand:

  • We would adhere to standards of exams past with full JCQ regulations in place and under sufficient supervision – we owed that to all students who have sat them previously
  • We would not be giving out topic lists to students or leaving out chunks of the course – doing so would undermine the integrity of the assessments and the qualifications of the courses sat

  • And, we would compile assessments fairly and with the right level of challenge to determine a fair grade. 

As stated above, this meant more work for staff: double the normal set of assessments would have to be made for both April and June, which in any normal year would have been set by the exam boards. Contacts across senior schools in the Bellevue group and beyond worked tirelessly to ensure expertise was in place for this task; the marking and invigilation load would obviously expand. 

Why would we do this to ourselves, one might ask? 

There are several answers I can offer:

‘Because it’s the right thing to do.’

‘Because it meets the standards I and the College is comfortable with.’

‘Because it’s fair to all students.’

‘Because we have a duty to the schools, colleges and universities who form the next steps in those students’ lives to ensure transition to them is done transparently.’

With everyone I’ve consulted, I’ve grown more sure that our course of action has been exactly the right process. Staff knew it would stretch them, but acceded because they had the best interests of the students at heart. Students, though infrequently unhappy at the thought of more stress and anxiety, saw that it gave them opportunity – particularly important given the fact that their counterparts last year were bereft of it. Parents have been supportive as they know that it is a necessary step to find a fair award for their children.

I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from a parent of one of our Private Candidates, and I’m sure the peace of mind gained from our process is indispensable for them. They stated that, “As the parent of an external candidate it is reassuring to know that this approach has been taken by Ealing. The circumstances are quite challenging for everyone this year and we are trying to do our utmost to deliver the necessary content to our son who has been out of formal education for two years now, therefore hearing that it will be a ‘level playing field’ is good to know.”

Following the April Assessments, I received more which left me emboldened that our approach had been the right one:

Thanks again though, I do believe the way the college has handled grading this year was absolutely the fairest option so I just wanted to express my gratitude for that.”

“Thank you for your help with allowing me to sit external exams at your college, and the time the teachers have taken. I feel like this gives me a better chance.”

“A very special thank you to all who we encountered at the college. Even at her young age, our daughter was happy and confident through the whole process which, no doubt, was made possible by the kind and professional attention she received.”

We have, throughout this process, been transparent. If a student wants to see a copy of their April Assessment, and wants to review the marking in the hope of avoiding mistakes in the future, they can. If they want to find areas of weakness to advise their revision strategies, they can. The plan behind the entire process was to ensure that, above all, dedication and commitment was rewarded.

Of course, this is not a ‘normal’ year, and our process of results collation, moderation and standardisation will be sympathetic. We will factor any mitigating circumstances into the grades we award, and are mindful of the impact of the pandemic on young people.

Our decision making process will then be thoroughly scrutinised amongst the Bellevue group, with our three fellow senior schools meeting collaboratively in mid-June to audit and further explore how we have arrived at the awards determined for our students.

I am fully aware that there is no perfect way to conduct this process. We find ourselves in unique and challenging times – and what works for one school may not work for another. Throughout, I have been guided by the term ‘fairness and opportunity for all’ – and I believe with this approach, we have achieved that.

I saw a popular tweet recently by another teacher which asked, “Anyone else feel it would have just been easier to let year 11 and 13 sit exams?”

Well, quite – that’s essentially what we’re doing. I just hope that the extra strain of time and effort put on teachers, who have taken on the roles of invigilators and exam markers on top of their normal day job, will be rewarded.

To find out more about Ealing Independent College, visit their profile page.