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Got issues? Don’t let Mr Angry stop the digital exam debate

I’m currently preparing for next week’s eAA Annual Conference, for a panel regarding digitising of England’s school exams, notably GCSE.


I’ve seen exam owners release digitisation strategies, policy folk publish increasingly informed reports, and journalists momentarily grapple with the issue. But I’ve also witnessed a lot of anger and inflammatory remarks about digital exams.


It’s struck me there are a lot of angry educators and headteachers out there. Mr Angry (and it’s a man 99 times out of a 100) becomes very defensive and hostile when school digital exams are (re)launched.”It won’t work in my school...I don't care if it works in 30+ countries...I'm CEO in charge of 3,000 kids, you're not”. Too often, Mr Angry confuses the noble art of teaching, with the operational muck-and-nettles of international high-stakes digital exam delivery, at scale.

The noble art of teaching is often confused with the operational muck-and-nettles of high-stakes exam delivery.

Why are they angry? A distinct lack of trust. After all, if an external body wants to digitally audit every part of the exam process at your school, you might be upset. Or if control of exam delivery is being taken out of your hands. Or even, if a non-educator offers a vision to make life easier for you and your learners!

Anger is a function of mis-trust. Even if digital would actually make life easier for you and your learners.

But their anger blinds them to the wider and deeper benefits, and to use cases showcasing digital. A narrow, parochial view of ‘digital evil’ holds back student performance, locks out SEN learners, manacles teachers to endless marking and ‘teaching-to-the-test’. And that’s before we look at 20th Century anachronisms, such as barred windows and separate paper storage rooms that JCQ insist upon.


I understand being frightened of the unknown. To feel threatened by an imposition. And being told to change, when it should be self-motivating. Yet, I can’t help but feel the anger is self-serving, rather than serving the learner. Many of us have impositions in our workplace – often for regulatory, safety, and improvement reasons. Digital shines a harsh, unforgiving, but truthful light on assessment practices, compared to paper.

Nobody likes being threatened by an imposition, and being told to change.

Whenever school exam digitisation becomes a news story, I’ve felt frustrated as our trade bodies and figureheads go mute. I’ve become incredulous when journalists prefer to quote bizarre, detached people with an interest in calligraphy, rather than the assessment sector. It regresses the debate, and chooses to ignore or villify what is being done today at scale.


The latest Ofqual Perceptions Survey showed there’s a lot of awareness to be raised, and persuasion still to be delivered for on-screen exams. The Macro Issues of Trust, Control, and Benefit need a lot of work. The operational arguments surrounding Kit & Capacity, Implementation, and Fairness are still hampered by the sector’s inarticulacy.

Macro issues in digital exams are unresolved. The sector does itself no favours by its inarticulacy.

More troubling is Passivity. A debate needs active participants. Organisations and people who own a debating position at large. Who can then mobilise and incentivise others to participate. To set the news agenda for digital exams. Unfortunately, 20 years since the regulator told us to prepare for on-screen by 2009, it’s still rare to see informed opinions, advice, and predictions on digital exams.


My eAA session will call for a campaign. One that is consistent, coherent, and progressive. I wish there was a campaign we could all get behind. And may be turn Mr Angry into a passionate advocate of change!


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