Exclusive: 2021 GCSE grades could be even more generous

Senior exam sector sources say grades in next year's GCSE and A-level results may need to be even higher than this summer's to be fair

Catherine Lough

GCSEs and A levels 2021: Results might need to be even higher than this year to be fair, say exam sector figures

Next year’s GCSE and A-level grades may need to be even more "generous" than those in this summer’s unmoderated results if they are to be fair to the students involved, senior figures within the exams sector have told Tes.

Their views are important as they are involved in the discussions over the increasingly urgent need to fix arrangements for next summer’s exams when so much lesson time has already been lost.

They argue that even if those who experienced significant disruption due to the pandemic, especially in areas of severe lockdown, get results in line with last year’s generous final grades, the cohort would effectively be penalised. 

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But they also acknowledge that other variables could be changed to help 2021 candidates such as even more “optionality” in the exams themselves or greater flexibility over entry requirements from universities and sixth-form colleges.

GCSEs and A levels 2021: Fair grades for all?

“Holistically more generous grading has got to be in the mix,” one senior exams sector source told Tes. “Because if you look at 2020, those students had an advantage [in grades] in the end.

“And then you go into 2021 and those kids will have lost out on months of education. They are definitely at a disadvantage relative to 2020 and we need to answer that question.

“But it’s about a package, a holistic solution. If we did something more in exams to address optionality then that might mean we would have to do less on being generous with grading standards.”  

However, another source close to the discussions suggested to Tes that grading standards for 2021 would be pitched between 2019 and 2020 to ensure that public faith in the exams system and students' morale was not adversely affected.

"I think they'll go halfway between 2019 and 2020. Because 2020 was obviously unexpectedly inflated and the psychology of exam results matters a great deal. Because, after all, it was the reaction of the public as well as schools that caused politicians to abandon their system," they said. 

"With a year group that has had a rough time, I guess they would be bound to be generous with the grading and that means fixing it somewhere in between 2019 and 2020.”

Exam sector sources have also suggested that special consideration will be used to mitigate disadvantage for students who have lost out on weeks of learning owing to local lockdowns.

This week heads in the Liverpool City Region – where the coronavirus alert level is “very high” – have called for further adjustments to be made to exam papers for their students to ensure they are not disadvantaged through lost learning time. 

But Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said grading should not be more generous next year than it had been in 2020.

"What the 2021 generation need more than anything is teaching, because the obsession with exams and tinkering with comparable outcomes distracts us from the most important thing,” he said.

“The priority must be how can we get as much teaching to those young people as possible.

"And secondly, when it comes to exams, no single measure is going to solve every problem for the 2021 generation. It seems to me that if you were to peg 2021 exams back to 2019, for example – and there is a kind of logic to that, 2020 was a bizarre year – when did we last have normality, well actually you would definitely be penalising the 2021 generation.

"If you then say we need to move it higher than the 2020 generation, it feels like we're playing around with statistics here. I think a lot of people in the general public would say, 'Hold on a minute, so these young people who have had less teaching are now going to get higher grades than young people who finished their courses in 2020?'

“We know that this is an issue with which Ofqual and the exam boards are currently grappling. Our view is that more needs to be done to adapt next year’s exams to ensure that all students, including those whose education has been most disrupted, have the opportunity to demonstrate what they know and can do.

"This should include the introduction of more choice in the questions students answer. This would, in our view, make it easier for the exam boards to fairly compare the performance of this year’s students with those in previous years.”

ASCL has previously recommended that grading be pitched between 2019 and 2020.

Ofqual has said that students sitting GCSE and A-level exams as part of the autumn series this year will be awarded grades in line with the “generosity” of mostly teacher-assessed grades in the summer.

A spokesperson for Ofqual said: "Ofqual is working with the government, the education sector and exam boards on our plans for exams and assessments in summer 2021. While the teaching year has been extended, we understand that students have missed out on some teaching and learning, and this varies among pupils and across the country.

"That is why we are considering a range of options. We will say more about this before the end of the year."


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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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