By Steve Chalke
It is “vitally important” that children go back to school next week. “It is far more damaging for a child’s development and their health . . . to be away from school any longer” the prime minister said yesterday.
I agree. As leader of a charity responsible for 53 schools and 32,000 students, I believe, just as the prime minister does, that we have a “moral duty” to get this done. It is to that end that our educational teams have been working hard for months to ensure all our sites and buildings are as Covid-secure as we can possibility make them.
But as the hazy days of summer come to an end, another huge question looms large — one that only the government can answer — and one which I believe it has a moral duty to answer before next week.
What every school leader needs to know before September 1 is this: what is the proposal for next year’s exams and grading?
We need a clear Covid-secure, failsafe timetable and plan. And we need it now.
As Donald Rumsfeld, President George W Bush’s defence secretary, would remind us all, in any complex situation there are always “known knowns”, several “known unknowns” and various “unknown unknowns”, which can be the hardest to navigate.
So, let’s start with the known knowns of our present situation.
As Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, has made clear, “the challenge of Covid-19 will be with us for at least the next nine months”. There is unlikely to be a vaccine in 2020, though there is a “reasonable chance” of a successful jab being ready for the winter of 2021-22. He also tells us that we need to accept that, as autumn and winter come upon us, the pressures will increase. In other words, living with Covid is the “new normal”.
Then the known unknowns. No one can guarantee that the coming academic year will not be punctuated by local lockdowns or even a full-blown second wave of the coronavirus, which means we must get ready for the possibility of periods of home-learning, at least for some pupils.
So, how will the 2021 exam results be graded? Will mock exams be standardised? Will they all take place in a uniform way on the same dates? Will these be before or after Christmas? Will all this further disadvantage some students in areas with local lockdowns? Will there be an algorithm 2.0? Or will final results for 2021 simply be based on teacher assessment? Will coursework play more of a part? If final exams take place, will the dates be moved back?
When it come to the 2021 exams, it is the government’s moral duty to deal with, what at the moment for students and their teachers are a worrying set of unknown unknowns.
To avoid reliving the chaos of the past fortnight — with all the accompanying stress, strain and undermining of mental health — our pupils, their parents and our staff need clarity from the Department for Education about their strategy for next year. From Sats to GCSEs and A-levels, our schools need a clear plan from the first day in.
We need to know what we’re headed for, and we need it now!
Rev Steve Chalke is the founder and leader of Oasis, a charitable trust that develops education, housing, youth and wider community across the UK and in other countries. Oasis runs 53 academies in England