Edtech CEO deems decision to scrap 2021 exams a ‘positive move made by the Welsh government’

Atif Mahmood, former teacher and CEO of Teacherly, believes the decision could drive a positive shift in methods of formative assessment

An edtech CEO has deemed the decision to scrap GCSE, AS and A-Level exams in Wales next year “a positive move made by the Welsh government”.

Atif Mahmood, former teacher and CEO of remote learning platform Teacherly, described the recent announcement as “a unique opportunity for formative assessment to adapt and modernise”.

Welsh education minister Kirsty Williams said that while there was no guarantee of a level playing field for exams in light of the ongoing coronavirus crisis, headteachers across the country would do all they can to support a “national approach” to ensure consistency across the board.

“The wellbeing of learners and ensuring fairness across the system is central to our decision making process,” Ms Williams explained.

“We remain optimistic that the public health situation will improve, but the primary reason for my decision is down to fairness; the time learners will spend in schools and colleges will vary hugely and, in this situation, it is impossible to guarantee a level playing field for exams to take place.

“We have consulted with universities across the UK and they have confirmed that they are used to accepting many different types of qualifications.”

The exams fiasco in the UK this year steered the government’s decision to mark students based on teacher-predicted grades, with the pandemic causing continued disruption to the traditional examinations process. In light of this, Williams sought advice from Qualifications Wales on the best way to move forward in 2021, while the decision to cancel exams was also informed by interim findings of a review of the 2020 exams process.

In Wales next year, exams will be conducted under teacher supervision, kicking off in the latter half of the spring term 2021. While tests will be completed within a classroom environment, they will be set and marked externally.

Mahmood said the traditional formal testing process “isn’t a viable option until the disruption to learning has been significantly reduced”, hailing the Welsh government’s acknowledgement of the current learning gap disparities among students.

“That said, it will be interesting to see whether this sets a precedent for formative testing of pupils in the future,” adds Mahmood. “Despite Ofsted’s chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, suggesting we should think about the consequences of ‘drastic’ and sudden changes to how a system works, could classroom-based assessments actually be a better way of testing pupils going forward? Children learn in different ways and teachers have different teaching styles, yet all pupils end up in the same exam hall, expected to complete the same test paper. In some cases, it doesn’t provide an accurate representation of a student’s ability or a teacher’s skill, and puts pupils under a lot of stress. This could be a unique opportunity for formative testing to adapt and modernise.”

“…could classroom-based assessments actually be a better way of testing pupils going forward?” – Atif Mahmood, Teacherly

The same can’t yet be said elsewhere in the UK; in England, for example, 2021 exams are set to go ahead as planned, but some have been delayed by three weeks to allow more time for teaching, while content in some subjects has been streamlined.

Scotland has also decided to cancel National 5 exams (equivalent to GCSEs) in favour of teacher assessments and coursework. Higher and advanced higher exams, on the other hand, have been pushed back two weeks.

Exams in Northern Ireland are set to go ahead as planned, but the number of papers in some subjects has been reduced.

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