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Move to digital exams, win a microwave?

In 2015, UK Labour leader Ed Miliband hired David Axelrod, Obama’s election strategist. Axelrod said a successful campaign relied on two elements. Both have parallels with the school digital exam debate for England’s schools.


Firstly, the Macro-Message. In the digital exam world, this means - stay with paper, it already works; or we must change to digital, let’s make it happen.

The second part is the Retail Offer. Granular announcements on funky item types, niche software features, or how many exam delivery locations can be offered.


Axelrod said Labour was offering too many of these random, low-quality, Retail Offers. For example, in their world, it was the energy bill price freeze, which voters couldn’t comprehend or believe. There was not enough of the Macro-Message to answer the question, “Why should I trust this political party?”. Or, “Why should I trust digital exams?”


The Retail Offer of “Vote Labour, win a microwave”, Axelrod told Miliband, was unconvincing, transactional, and individualistic.

There's not yet enough Macro-Message to answer, "Why should we trust digital exams?"

Back to exams. The Retail Offer, such as a new software feature, may be popular on its own, but has two major defects. Firstly, singular announcements are rarely heard by the wider assessment public, such as headteachers and policy makers. They are not as ‘oven-ready’ engaged in the day-to-day exam sector, as many suppliers and trade bodies imagine.

The assessment public aren't as oven-ready engaged as you think they are.

Secondly, each Retail Offer has to dominate the assessment discourse for months, even years, to impact the Macro Message. The Australian phrase, “You can’t fatten the pig on market day” means you can’t short-cut the art of persuasion. If you haven't laid out what digital exams are about, and what the conversion process looks like, you can't do it every school exam season, or election time.


Even if the benefits gain traction – that sparkly change moment where policy folk, educators, headteachers, and regulators actually hear what the trade bodies and suppliers are saying – are they convincing people to change their minds?


And if those targeted people hear what the sector is offering – does it engender a positive or negative response?

The majority of headteachers still have a stubborn, negative opinion on managing digital exams.

Ofqual’s most recent Perceptions Survey shows a stubborn, negative response from headteachers. Almost two-thirds surveyed disagree that digital exams would be more manageable. Headteachers may just be hearing, “You are taking away my control of exam delivery”, rather than a consensual, macro operational plan to reduce school exam delivery risk. While this point is never mentioned in the public discourse, it remains troubling to headteachers and educators.


Currently, school digital exams remains a ‘win a microwave” strategy. The suppliers and trade bodies, who have a ton of shareable experience at scale, say little on the actual issues and overcoming objections.

Free microwaves and funky item types aren't changing opinions.

Everything is defined by the Macro-Message. Can we trust digital? Will my job be under threat? Who’s paying for all this kit? Where is the capacity?


The sector must do better to persuade the sceptics. New item types or free microwaves won’t change opinions or behaviour. If we want better exams and assessment, the sector needs to go Macro, not keep churning out software release webinars.


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