More generous exam grading ‘right thing to do’, says Welsh watchdog

Giving Welsh students ‘a little bit of benefit of the doubt’ over grading in 2023 is about fairness, says Qualifications Wales chief executive
8th November 2022, 3:10pm

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More generous exam grading ‘right thing to do’, says Welsh watchdog

https://www.tes.com/magazine/news/secondary/more-generous-exam-grading-right-thing-do-says-welsh-watchdog
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After it emerged that - unlike England - Wales would not be returning to pre-pandemic standards when it came to the 2023 exams, there were calls for the more generous approach to grading to be factored into university offers.

However, in an interview with Tes, the chief executive of Qualification Wales, Philip Blaker, has sought to reassure Welsh students that there is “no evidence” they will be treated any differently when it comes to university admissions - and he has defended his organisation’s decision to take another year to return to pre-pandemic standards.

In September, Ofqual announced a return to pre-pandemic grading in 2023, but with “some protection against any impact of Covid disruption”.

Blaker says the position taken by Qualifications Wales that outcomes following the 2023 exams will be broadly between 2019 and 2022 levels will give students “a little bit of benefit of the doubt this year”. He says this “feels like the right thing to do from a fairness perspective” when the disruption caused by the pandemic is still being felt by students and schools - and could continue this year.

Ultimately, Blaker says that Wales plans to return to pre-pandemic standards by the 2024 exam season and that the generosity at A level in 2023 should equate to “about a third of a grade” - which he argues will not have a significant impact on university admissions.

He says: “Anticipating that things might be about a third of a grade generous this year relative to pre-pandemic standards is giving people the benefit of the doubt around some borderline decisions and we think, given the circumstances that learners have had over the last couple of years, and the disruption that they would have felt in their learning experiences, actually, giving a little bit of benefit of the doubt this year feels like the right thing to do from a fairness perspective.

“So we are thinking about the fairest approach, recognising the circumstances that learners have experienced over the last couple of years, that still takes us on a journey back to pre-pandemic standards, in our case, in 2024.”

Asked if Welsh students will therefore have an advantage over English students when it comes to competing for university places, Blaker says that only a small number of borderline learners will see any impact on their grades from the approach.

“If you are looking at the overall number of learners in England relative to the number of learners in Wales it’s such a marginal issue I don’t think it would have any impact [on university admissions] in reality,” he says.

“We are talking about a small amount of benefit of the doubt around the borderline which will just take some learners over a grade boundary where they wouldn’t have been over that grade boundary otherwise.

“It won’t apply to everybody. It’s not that every learner in Wales is going to get a grade higher than they otherwise might have got. It’s just going to be around tipping some people over that grade boundary, so I don’t think it’s going to have such an effect that it would have a significant impact on university admissions.”

He says Qualifications Wales spoke to a wide range of stakeholders ahead of announcing its approach to grading in 2023 - including Ucas, Universities UK and Russell Group universities - and it is “confident that the universities won’t disadvantage Welsh learners”

“We have spoken to a vast range of stakeholders in the [higher education] environment and nobody has given us any cause for concern that the approach we have taken will disadvantage learners in Wales.”

The furore over the more generous approach to grading in Wales in 2023 comes as Qualifications Wales is also leading a major qualifications overhaul, with GCSEs being reformed so that they chime with the new curriculum, Curriculum for Wales, which is being introduced this school year.

Last month, a national conversation was launched to give all those with an interest in education the chance to have their say on the proposed changes, which are due to be taught for the first time in September 2025.

The goal of the qualifications reform, says Blaker, is to ensure alignment with the aspirations of the new curriculum. There will, he says, be a general shift towards more non-exam assessment - and away from “terminal assessment” - which he says will allow “more local curricula to come through”.

In humanities, for instance, the proposal is that 50 per cent of the final grade is based on non-exam assessment.

However, while the proposed changes to GCSEs are significant, Blaker says that he expects any changes at A level to be more about “tweaking” than “substantial change”.

Lessons from Scotland could be valuable here, given that Curriculum for Wales borrows heavily from Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, which last year came in for criticism because of the gulf between its aspirations and the demands of the heavily exams-based system in the latter part of secondary school.

A review of CfE stated: “Despite attempts to reform qualifications, misalignment between CfE’s aspirations and the qualification system became a barrier to CfE’s implementation in secondary education.”

However, Blaker points out that the CfW is a 3-16 curriculum and also that Qualifications Wales is “mindful about going too far with A-level reforms, given the fact that learners in Wales are engaging in a UK higher education system”.

He says: “You want to make sure the value of the A-level qualification in Wales is the same as the value of the A-level qualification in England.

“It’s almost thinking about it like a central banker, thinking about the value of your currency.

“What we want to make sure is we have got equity in that value of the currency with the same qualification in England.”

And that is also what Blaker is determined to ensure this academic year - that Welsh students’ results in 2023 are valued equally.

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