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Exams must move on from ‘unsafe sweaty sports halls’, say headteachers

Heads say parents must not be ‘demonised’ if their children do not want to go to school.

11 March 2022

Headteachers have said that assessment methods should move beyond crowds of pupils sitting papers in “sweaty” sports halls.

Pepe Di’Iasio, president of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said that GCSE and A-level exams needed “to move forward”, adding: “I think the idea of being in a sports hall or putting 300 young people in summer in sweaty hot conditions is just not safe and not appropriate.”

Technology should be used to adapt the exams to make them “equally robust if not better” rather than relying on “Victorian” assessment methods, he said in a briefing ahead of the union’s annual conference on Friday and Saturday, held in Birmingham.

Twenty-first century testing methods could be used so that pupils were not required to sit a paper and have it sent off to be moderated, he said, adding that exam board fees were an “unnecessary burden” for schools.

Mr Di’Iasio added that in the forthcoming education White Paper, “we have a movement towards a lot of talk about structures once again, about a fully academised system”.

Private schools
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (Jason Senior/ASCL)

He said that this would not be at the top of headteachers’ agendas at the conference, with concerns about paying electricity and gas bills, or making sure pupils had “food on the table”, being at the forefront of their minds.

Geoff Barton, ASCL’s general secretary, said that there was an “eye-watering and worrying” number of pupils missing from the system, after Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza published a report estimating that nearly 1.8 million pupils had missed at least 10% of their schooling last term.

He said that parents must not be “demonised” by a focus on polarising behaviour policies such as silent corridors, at a time when they needed support.

“If what we’re going to hear from the White Paper is a theme around behaviour and attendance, well fine, that’s a good thing,” he said.

But he added that Government needed to be careful about “the tone” of this, with the Department for Education needing to make sure “that we are helping and supporting parents who are often tearing their hair out because of young people who are not coming into school, rather than demonising them, or simply throwing red meat to the backbenchers, saying ‘We’re going to be tough on behaviour, we’re going to have silent corridors, we’re going to fine parents’.”

“This would be totally the wrong time to do that kind of rather simplistic, polarised stuff. This must be about doing everything we can to get those young people back into a place where they’re getting more than just lessons – they’re getting the whole socialisation that our best schools bring them,” he added.

He said members had raised worries and concerns that the “whole world” seemed to think the pandemic was over but that “it definitely doesn’t feel like that for some members in their schools and colleges”.

There was also “continuing concern about exams, and people want exams to happen but inevitably they are fielding questions from young people about whether the exams will be fair”.

He added that staff absence in some areas continued to be “significant” and that if there were not enough staff, supply teachers needed to be used. Where there was a lack of supply teachers, whole year groups had had to be sent home this week.

Covid-19 test kits needed to be freely available for pupils and staff so that they could be present for their exams, he said.

Mr Barton said that the recent case of a Croydon Catholic school which invited a gay young adult author, Simon James Green, to speak to pupils on Monday before Southwark Archdiocese intervened and cancelled the event, was a cause of “dismay” to school leaders.

“I think like lots of people we would have a sense of dismay,” Mr Barton said, adding: “That what we want our schools to do is to hold a mirror up to the best of our society”.

“And whether you’re a faith school or not a faith school, you would hope that what young people are being prepared for is a world in which people may not look like them, may have different characteristics from them, may not have a faith like them, but nevertheless are bound by a sense of humanity.”

“At this of all times that seems hugely important,” he said, adding that many people whether of faith or not would be “dismayed”.

Mr Di’Iasio added that “the thought of having books closed off to certain individual characteristics or cohorts of students is something I’d really want to caution against”.

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