Exam Reform

Please consider voting for our emergency motion: “The exam fiasco of August 2020 makes a case for exam reform”, and let’s begin the debate about putting trust back in our teachers, and avoiding education by an algorithm.

Schools closing to all but the most vulnerable students opened the eyes of many in school communities. Those with children learning at home developed a new appreciation for the patience and resilience of their child’s teachers, as well as their ability to explain a fronted adverb. Students missed the one-on-one support of their teachers and the routine of the school day, and teachers grappled with the new challenge of teaching over zoom. The face of education was revolutionised virtually overnight, and all involved had to adapt to new approaches to learning, pastoral support and safeguarding.

Part of this new world was using teacher assessed grades in place of physical exams. School staff spent hours following the government’s process of assigning grades based on previous assessments and progress over time, which were then internally moderated and compared to the previous few years of results to settle upon a grade that was a reasonable judgement of what each child would achieve.

Of course, not content to trust the professionals, Gavin Williams and Nick Gibb decided that to make sure students in larger classes didn’t do better than usual, they would apply an algorithm to the results which, rather than seeking to remove inequality, ensured it was systemic.

With our first virtual Conference approaching, the fiasco of the summer exams means the time is right for us to discuss how we regain our place as the party of education. As two Lib Dem teachers, Stephen Drew and I are therefore pleased to be able to bring forward an emergency motion on the need for teacher-led exam reform.

Please do consider voting for our emergency motion: “The exam fiasco of August 2020 makes a case for exam reform”, and let’s begin the debate about putting trust back in our teachers, and avoiding education by an algorithm. If you are attending Conference you will receive an email on Friday evening with a list of emergency motions so you can vote for the two you would most like discussed.


* Cheney Payne is PPC for Cambridge

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This entry was posted in Conference and Op-eds.


  • John Marriott 23rd Sep '20 - 3:37pm

    By all means put trust back into teachers; but not in the educational establishment, from whose mistakes in the implementation of comprehensive education in the 1970s has arisen the mess we are in today.

    It’s also time to scrap GCSEs and bring in a Tomlinson style diploma, where the vocational enjoys parity of esteem with the academic. Let’s also get rid of academy chains and their ‘Chief Executives’ and return all state schools to the light touch control of democratically accountable local authorities. Abolish the charitable status of private schools as well and we might end up with an education system fit for the 21st century.

  • richard underhill 23rd Sep '20 - 4:45pm

    John Marriott 23rd Sep ’20 – 3:37pm
    Shall we be realistic? Do you think it may be a little early for detailed policy?
    On Politics Live with Jo Coburn today after PMQ A Labour MP was saying that
    “Values do not change, policies do”, which is a bit sad as Jo Coburn was trying to find out to what extent this MP differed from her new leader, whose speech to Labour conference is now on the record.
    So what are Labour values?
    1) Kier Starmer has made a strong statement about anti-semitism and seems to want to finish the job.
    3) He listens to Tony Blair and therefore may be assumed to support education, education and education.
    2) TB told his cabinet “Getting re-elected”
    4) ????

  • John Marriott 23rd Sep '20 - 5:06pm

    @Richard Underhill
    If you have taken the trouble to read any of my contributions in LDV on education over the past few years you will be aware that ‘what went wrong in the 1970s’ is a hobby horse I cannot resist riding. You see, my teaching career, for what it was worth, just about coincides with the history of post grammar school state education. I started teaching (rather reluctantly in a grammar school) in 1966, just as the change was kicking off and, except for four years teaching abroad from 1970 to 1974, was part of all that happened, at least at secondary level. I sincerely believe that we in the education service have a lot to answer for in the way we have allowed it to be abused first by a series of educational zealots and then a collection of politicians, many of whom treated in the narrowest possible terms.

    Yes, I do feel strongly about where we got it wrong, and, in my opinion, we keep getting it wrong. So, please indulge me a little more. In any case, as I am no longer a party member and have never been a great fan of conferences, either live or virtual, I prefer to get my jollies on a platform like this.

  • Peter Watson 23rd Sep '20 - 6:12pm

    “The exam fiasco of August 2020 makes a case for exam reform”
    Given that the fiasco happened because we didn’t have any exams, I am not sure what sort of “exam reform” a case is being made for or what the motion is trying to achieve.
    More exams? Fewer exams? No exams? Different exams? The same old exams but with social distancing?
    Unless there’s some detail behind the motion that is not being shared in the article, this just sounds like a pointless excuse to whinge about Williamson and Gibb (and probably Gove and Swinney but definitely not Williams – interesting typo in the article! 😉 ) without moving anything forward.

  • I remember 1966. It was the year of the circular 10/66, in which the government required all local education authorities to draw up plans for the abolition of selection in their schools. I was a secondary school teacher at the time and remember also the difficulties involved over those years in raising the school leaving age from 15 to 16.
    Circular 10/66 seemed to be remembered by most people. There was a battle at Stamford Bridge which King Harold won. This was followed a month later by a battle at Hastings. William had the advantage that it is a lot nearer from Caen to Hastings than it is from Yorkshire to Hastings.
    When I did my A levels in 1959 we were able to use past papers stretching back to the thirties. The algorithms they used they didn’t call algorithms. But they didn’t have computers to do the hard sums.

  • Jamie Dalzell 23rd Sep '20 - 7:10pm

    To confirm for those asking; all emergency motions are included in Conference Extra, starting on Page 15, as published:


    This post refers to Emergency Motion 6 on Page 21. Elevator pitch: The motion seeks to make ministers accountable, put teachers at the centre of planning for next year whilst starting to lay the foundation for wider reforms that do challenge the dominant role of exams in assessment.

  • Peter Watson 24th Sep '20 - 4:28pm

    @Jamie Dalzell
    Thanks for that link.
    I like the elevator pitch more than the motion itself! The latter still leaves me a little unclear whether the priority here is an opportunity to whinge about this summer and the use of an algorithm to assign grades when there are no exams (a pretty awful situation to deal with for all concerned) in order to decide how to cope with such a scenario in the future (though I suspect the Government will move heaven and earth to deliver socially-distanced exams if there’s a next time round), or a call for wider reform, or a bit of both. I guess that responding to the situation in the summer allows it to be an “emergency motion” but it’s a strategy for reform of exams within the school system (as hinted at in the elevator pitch) that is more interesting and important. In particular, this should go beyond tinkering with the way that grades are assigned to the current GCSE or A-levels.

    I like “While formal examinations can be a useful form of assessment, they are not by any means the only indicator of a child’s progress and potential” but would note that on the Lib Dems’ watch in Coalition there seemed to be significant steps in the wrong direction here, with an increased emphasis on a single set of exams at the end of two years’ study for GCSE and A-level.

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