A-level and GCSE grades U-turn: How did we get here?

Read our explainer on the developments leading up to today's historic decision to allow teacher-assessed grades to stand

Catherine Lough

GCSE and A-level grades U-turn: How did we get to this point?

Today brought one of the most momentous decisions in education policy for years, as Ofqual performed a remarkable U-turn over the GCSE and A-level grading process this year, choosing to award students their teacher-assessed grades after all.

But how did we get here? Read our timeline of the decisions and delays that led to today's announcement.

Coronavirus: The story of GCSE and A-level results

18 March: Exams are cancelled

The prime minister announces that schools will close following the outbreak of the coronavirus. All GCSE and A-level exams this year are cancelled.

"Of course, we will make sure that pupils get the qualifications they need and deserve for their academic career," Boris Johnson says.

3 April: Teachers to produce grade assessments and a rank order of students

Ofqual releases details of how a rank order of students for each grade and subject will be submitted by schools to exam boards, along with teachers' assessment of the grades students would have achieved had they sat the exams.

No mention is made of the use of historical school data to moderate grades.

15 April: Ofqual launches consultation on awarding grades

The regulator launches a consultation on how grades will be awarded in the absence of exams.

It says it will not check for bias against particular groups of students when examining teacher-assessed grades.

15 May: Details of the grading process released

Ofqual releases details confirming how its standardising process for grades will work this year

Schools will award students a teacher-assessed GCSE or A-level grade, as well as supply a rank order of students by each subject and grade

22 May: Ofqual announces consultation decisions

Ofqual says schools' historical exam performance will be given more weight to mitigate against "optimistic" teacher-assessed grades.

Improving schools will not have their trajectory taken into account, and the rank order of students cannot be changed to account for bias against students based on their ethnic or socioeconomic background.

6 July: IB results are 'randomly' allocated

In a sign of things to come, results for the International Baccalaureate are published to widespread outrage, as many students report receiving grades far below their teachers' predictions.

Tens of thousands of students sign a petition calling for justice.

The IB has used a combination of teacher-predicted grades, historical data and students' coursework to calculate grades - not entirely the same as the process used by Ofqual, but not wholly dissimilar either.

There is fury at the use of an "algorithm" to predict students' likely attainment, with one head describing the results as "randomly generated".

21 July: Ofqual reveals grade inflation

The regulator says the "vast majority" of schools and colleges submitted grades that were "optimistic".

It will have to make major changes to these grades so the value of grades this year is not "significantly undermined".

If teacher-assessed grades were used, the 2020 results would go up by 12 per cent at A level, across all grades, and 9 per cent at GCSE, it says.

4 August: Scottish results released

The Scottish Qualifications Authority releases its results. While the pass rate for Highers goes up, students in less affluent areas are more likely to see their marks downgraded in the moderation process.

The Higher pass rate falls for the most disadvantaged by 15.2 percentage points and for the least disadvantaged by 6.9 percentage points.

11 August: U-turn number 1

Following harsh criticism of injustices in the grading process, the Scottish government makes a U-turn.

All students whose teacher-assessed grades were marked down in moderation will have those grades withdrawn and be reissued with new grades “based solely on teacher or lecturer judgement”, Scottish education secretary John Swinney announces.

124,000 results are reversed as a result.

The NEU teaching union says this puts pressure on Mr Swinney's counterpart in Westminster to follow suit.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, says the decision makes things "very difficult" for Ofqual, education secretary Gavin Williamson and schools minister Nick Gibb.

Dr Bousted adds that the grading scandal is a "cut-through issue" that will resonate with the public, likening it to Dominic Cummings' sojourn to Barnard Castle

The Association of School and College Leaders strikes a more cautious tone, stating that "abandoning moderation obviously means [Scotland] is out of kilter with the rest of the UK, where standardisation is being used".

12 August: The 'triple lock' is announced

In an 11th-hour announcement, education secretary Gavin Williamson says A-level students will be able to use their mock exam results to progress on to university and jobs.

He says students "could" appeal their grades to receive a "valid mock result", or sit exams in autumn if they are unhappy with their grades.

"This triple-lock system will help provide reassurance to students and ensure they are able to progress with the next stage of their lives," he says.

13 August: A-level results released

A-level results are released, with many students left devastated by grades far lower than they had been predicted.

While the proportion of top grades increases overall, Geoff Barton, ASCL general secretary, says this hides "a great deal of volatility among the results at school and student level", describing the grades as "utterly unfair and unfathomable".

As it emerges that disadvantaged students were more likely to see their grades moderated downwards than their wealthier peers, Ofqual states that there is "simply no evidence" of bias in its standardising process.

Protests are planned by students to demand justice over the grades, while some seek legal action against the government.

15 August: Ofqual publishes – then removes – information on appeals

On Saturday afternoon, Ofqual publishes details of how students can appeal their A-level grades – only to abruptly withdraw these hours later. 

It announced that students would be able to appeal using their mock exam results if they met eight criteria. 

And Ofqual said if pupils' mock exam results were higher than teacher-assessed grades, the teacher-assessed grade would be awarded on appeal. 

But hours later, the details are withdrawn. Ofqual says the policy is "being reviewed" by its board and that further information will be released "in due course".

16 August: Kenneth Baker calls for GCSE delay

Former Conservative education secretary Lord Baker says GCSE results should be delayed after Ofqual's grading model produced "barely explicable" A-level downgrades.

17 August: Northern Ireland to use teacher-assessed grades

Northern Ireland announces it will use teacher-assessed grading; later in the day, so does Wales.

And, at 4pm, Ofqual announces England will follow suit

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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