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The School Year Ahead: A Doddle? Or a Muddle?

The last two academic years have been blighted by school closures, cancelled exams, bursting bubbles, algorithm U-turns and more.  So, is September steering us back to a smooth start of term? Our Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, expressed that due to the sheer success of the vaccine rollout, schools would look forward to a fresh start in the new academic year.  Sounds like a doddle.
But (you knew that was coming), normality and clarity still seem a faraway ideal.  With just over a week to go before the start of term, the Department for Education has, in what appears to be a last-minute decision, confirmed that schools will actually be allowed to return on a staggered basis, ensuring that all children are tested twice.  Other recent announcements by ministers state that families will also need to test their children twice a week until at least the end of September.  Contingency advice by the DfE (which was shared with schools a few days ago) reveals that any Covid outbreak involving more than five individuals could result in health teams asking schools to send home whole classes or even year groups to isolate.  Furthermore, one in five schools have plans to stagger not only the start of term, but also the start and the end of each school day throughout the autumn term to reduce student mixing.  One in eight schools will ask that masks be worn in class by all students and over a third of all schools will be enforcing a raft Covid-related precautions with some even saying that, where they can, lessons will be taught outdoors!  
Given all this, it seems inescapable that students will face yet more disruption in a third, consecutive academic year.  Add on top of this the installation of 300,000 government-promised carbon dioxide monitors and other classroom ventilation improvements being undertaken, it seems a stretch that students will be entirely focussed on their maths, English or science lessons.  It surely seems that September might be a bit of a muddle after all…
…And a muddle is certainly not what the incoming Year 11s and 13s need.  From anyone’s perspective, this academic year will be a demanding one for these poor students for a very particular reason: grade inflation.
On 10th and 12th August, the metaphorical graduation cap was thrown high into the air by thousands of students across the country.  Relief and elation echoed through school halls, on phone calls and across the media too.  The 2021 exam-envelope showed record-breaking results! Top grades at GCSE (7/As and above) rose to 28.9% from 26.2% in 2020, while grades 4/Cs and above (seen as passes) rose to 77.1% up from 76.3% in 2020.  This is up approximately 9% and 10%, respectively from 2019 results.  This year’s A-level results also showed a sharp uptick with 44.8% of grades awarded at A*/A, much higher than in 2019 where only 32.9% of grades awarded were A*/A.  Whilst Gavin Williamson "very much hopes and intends" for exams to go ahead in 2022, it does mean a rather tall challenge has been posed for schools, students and teachers alike - how to compete with the results of the previous two years?
Will there be a significant reduction in results once exams are reinstated?  Will the government and exam-boards ‘tweak’ specifications and exams to offset the disruption caused by Covid?  Will there be a more streamlined appeals process? The answers to these questions will be revealed only with time, but for now it appears that as one problem is solved, another is created: it looks like the fallout of grade inflation will land firmly at the feet of those starting Year 11 and 13 in September.
But there is reason to be optimistic.  Schools, which show remarkable resilience, are now pretty deft at dealing with the unknowns of exams and coursework in the face of ever-changing guidance, rules and regulations.  They have shown remarkable tenacity in navigating and safeguarding both student results and their onward progression over the last two years.  School staff will apply themselves and do what they do best for this cohort too.  Teachers are extraordinarily dedicated in ensuring that their students are equipped with the necessary content knowledge, subject skills and exam techniques to perform well.  Additionally, students will undoubtedly build up a body of evidence of their performance in a series of assessments likely to be undertaken throughout the academic year in case exams are cancelled again.  This ongoing revision and practise will stand them in very good stead for when they sit the exams next summer.  There are also innumerable revision courses available as well as the additional helping hand of a trusty tutor if needs be.  And with a healthy dose of effort and enthusiasm from the student, the muddle might just become a doddle.