I understand how difficult life has been for students, their parents and carers, and teachers this year. Many have had to self-isolate. Students have missed different amounts of teaching and learning time up and down the country. Teachers, school and college leaders have had to work in truly exceptional circumstances, teaching students both in school or college and at home, getting them ready for GCSE, AS and A level exams next summer, and for assessments and exams for vocational and technical qualifications. Parents have had to juggle working and home schooling.
I do not doubt how unrelenting and demanding this has been since the start of the pandemic. And I suspect it will continue to be challenging for some time as the impact of the pandemic washes through the education system.
At Ofqual, we have been working hard to look at different options for the forthcoming exams and assessments. We have been listening to students, parents, teachers, school and college leaders and training providers. We have been working with the Department for Education, the exam boards and awarding organisations. We have been speaking to universities and colleges, equality organisations, subject associations and teacher representatives.
Why exams are the fairest
So, while there are many uncertainties that we all face in the months ahead, I thought I would set down what we at Ofqual are proposing and why. First, I need to say quite clearly that we got it wrong last summer and we are sorry. Like other regulators across the UK, and with the best intentions, we worked with school and college leaders, the government and others to build a substitute for exams in a pandemic.
But it was not acceptable for a student to be denied the chance to show what they know, understand and can do, and instead to be given grades that the system thought they deserved. Summer 2020 showed us the importance of exams and external assessments. Despite every effort and every good intention, other ways of assessing students are likely to be less fair.
We firmly support exams going ahead next summer. Exams allow each student to show what they know and understand from the curriculum and, importantly, everyone has the same chance to show what they know. They are asked the same questions, at the same time, and they are marked in the same way. And marked anonymously.
Research suggests that when we assess students using a different method, bias can creep in. That is not always the case, but the result can be that bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds or students with special educational needs or disabilities suffer the most.
If teachers were to allocate grades this summer instead, they could, for example, assume that students who have been away from school would not do very well, when that may not be the case for everyone. It will be different for each student. Exams can allow students to pull it out of the bag.
Let us not forget, many students taking exams in summer 2021 will be nearly two-thirds through their courses by now. And while we have heard that some are anxious, we have heard from others who are keen to show what they can do in an exam.
I know that students have felt huge pressure this term, as have their teachers. There were some things we were able to agree early that will have helped – changes to how content is assessed in GCSE history and ancient history, to help teachers and students cover that content in appropriate depth. Changes to GCSE English literature, so that students are assessed on one fewer text than usual. Changes to fieldwork in a number of subjects and speaking assessments for GCSE modern foreign languages. More use of remote assessment and simulation of skills, and increased assessment windows in vocational qualifications. This has eased the pressure on many students and teachers. But we need more.
We know how important grades are, and that people carry them with them their whole lives. We need to be as fair to students as we can be in summer 2021. Summer 2020 results were unique, not just in how they were derived but in relation to the levels of achievement recorded, when compared to previous years. Overall, A level A and A* grades were up by 13 percentage points and GCSE grade 4 and above by 9 percentage points.
We have decided to carry forward the overall level of generosity from 2020 through to summer 2021. This is a big step that we hope recognises the disruption and lost learning caused by the pandemic at an overall, national level.
What does this decision mean for students? It is likely that students studying GCSEs, AS and A levels will not need to demonstrate the same level of performance in summer 2021 as in previous years to get a particular grade. But in general, this means that students in 2021 have as much chance of getting a grade A or a grade 4 as they did in 2020. We took a similar approach to account for dips in learning in the early years of new GCSEs. We and exam boards have the tools, and the experience to do this fairly.
We have decided on this radical step because we know that the pandemic has affected students and their studies deeply, and that it continues to do so. Some students in 2021 will be competing for higher education places or jobs with 2020 students, whose grades across the board were a lot higher than in 2019. Fairness matters.
All subjects will be generous to the same extent. For example, students taking biology will not be in a more advantageous position than students taking history. What we saw in summer 2020 was that certain subjects, such as music, received higher grades overall than other subjects, and to continue to maintain those differences would be unfair.
How will we do this?
Grading (also called awarding) takes place after exams have been sat, and after all the students’ papers have been marked. Exam boards total the marks across all papers and any non-exam assessment, so that each student has an overall mark. Grading is the final step in the process.
Grade boundaries – the lowest mark needed for a particular grade – are set by senior examiners. In a normal year, they aim to set a boundary that reflects a similar quality of work as previous years. That might mean looking at the quality of essays in English literature or history, or the extent to which a student can tackle the most complex problems in maths.
Next summer, we will regulate so that each exam board uses prior attainment data (from national key stage 2 or GCSE data) to identify grade boundaries to produce overall outcomes in line with 2020. Senior examiners will review student work at those grade boundaries – to make sure boundaries are not too low or too close together. Then the final grade boundaries will be set and applied to all students.
As we oversee awarding, we will be keeping a close eye on how acceptable those grade boundary positions will be, as we need to make sure the public can be confident that the grades are credible. We cannot bend exams out of shape too much, or they become meaningless.