GCSEs and A-levels results day 2021: What to expect

As we await the release of teacher-assessed grades next week, what are the issues teachers will be looking out for?

Catherine Lough

GCSE and A level Results Day 2021

With exams cancelled for yet another year, and TAGs rather than CAGs in their place, what do Tuesday and Thursday's results days have in store for us? Here's Tes' insiders guide on the issues that teachers and schools will have on their radar for next week and beyond:

News: DfE's state vs private schools A-level grade gap fears

GCSEs 2021: Teacher grades 'bias' legal battle looms

Exams 2021: 

A levels will show grade inflation – and inequality based on school type

There is likely to be higher levels of grade inflation at A level than in 2020, especially at the top end of the grading scale. 

GCSEs are also likely to be inflated on 2020 levels but not to the same degree.

And at A level there may be a wider gap seen between state school pupils and their privately educated peers. This may partly be due to parental pressure on teachers to raise grades, and also because the stakes at the top end of the grading scale at A level are higher, which could have led teachers to grade pupils more generously. Schools with a larger proportion of candidates aiming for an A or A* may therefore see more inflation.

Laura McInerney, co-founder of Teacher Tapp, also makes the point that "it’s highly possible this isn’t down to unfair grade inflation by private school teachers".

"Given all the evidence of how much harder schools closures hit state school pupils it would be extraordinary if private school kids weren’t showing higher achievements," she adds.

An Ofqual technical report showed that last year, 60.4 per cent of A-levels at private schools were awarded the two top grades while in state comprehensive schools the figure was 32.7 per cent.

Since exams were cancelled and plans for teacher-assessed grades were revealed, there have been conflicting accounts of whether there will be "Weimar" levels of inflation.

In March, Ofqual interim chair Ian Bauckham told the ASCL conference that the probable high levels of grade inflation in 2021 will not be sustainable over the long term and will erode confidence in qualifications.

But interim chief regulator Simon Lebus told the NAHT conference that while teachers would give pupils the benefit of the doubt, "that will only lead to some small upward pressure on outcomes, not the Weimar-style inflation or 'prizes for all' that some commentators have unhelpfully suggested".

Speaking to the Leaders' Council in July, Mr Lebus said that the "benefit of the doubt factor" was "going to contribute to an improvement, probably, in overall outcome levels" - essentially, in a class where five out of thirty pupils could achieve a grade 9, some would miss out on this in an exam, whereas under a teacher-assessed system they would all achieve the top grade based on a holistic judgement.

"Also we're only testing students on what they've been taught and what we would therefore expect them to know about," he added.

"There's none of this, as I think you would have with normal exams, that you get asked questions about things that you haven't revised for or you didn't cover very thoroughly in the syllabus, so that also is probably going to put some upward pressure on results."

Roger Taylor, the chair of Ofqual in 2020, told Tes: "Grade inflation is likely to be highest at the boundaries that have most impact on university results.

"We may see higher levels of inflation in private schools purely because they have more candidates at these grade boundaries. This should be distinguished from higher inflation generally.  

He added: "Grade inflation in A levels can create problems for educational standards in the long run, and may cause some unfairness between different year groups in the medium term.

"But it need not be a problem for candidates graduating this year as they are, in the main, competing with each other for university places.

Appeals may skyrocket

The number of appeals – particularly at A level – is likely to be very high owing to grade inflation and greater competition for university places. 

Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL, has also previously said there may be "a huge number of appeals beyond the priority appeals".

In July, schools minister Nick Gibb said that reviews of teacher judgements have been requested on "some occasions", where questions have been raised over grading evidence.

Pupils cannot add any new evidence when they appeal, but they can challenge judgements based on incorrect marking or on the basis of the school not following its own assessment policy.

Confusion over appeals

There could also be confusion over how appeals will work, particularly as schools have followed such disparate routes in arriving at their grades.

There are two stages of appeals – pupils can first of all request that their school carries out a centre review to check for administrative errors. If the school finds that no administrative error has been made, the school can appeal directly to the exam board on the pupil's behalf - if for example the pupil feels their TAG grade is incorrect on the grounds of 'unreasonable academic judgement.' 

Pupils will then need their school's centre policy, the sources of evidence used to determine their grade along with associated marks, details of any variations in evidence used based on disruption to teaching time and details of any special circumstances that were considered when arriving at their grade.

But all of this could make the process extremely complicated. Will pupils and their families understand the process? And will there be outrage over the various routes schools have had to use for grading this year? Pupils cannot, for example, appeal on the basis that they sat full mock exams for their grade while a nearby school used highly structured in-class assessments

Political pressure and the blame game

Last year, with hundreds of students unhappy with their algorithm-moderated grades, there was at least a pressure valve built into the system, with the government u-turn to centre-assessed grades.

This year, there is no default position. If large numbers of pupils are unhappy with their results, there could be immense political pressure on the DfE which will find it has little option other than finding some spare cash down the back of the sofa. This could be used to ease the nature of appeals – perhaps through funding them to make them free for students – or through paying for extra bulge places for schools, colleges and universities.

But the DfE could face a fierce backlash on results, especially if A-level results show serious socioeconomic disparities. And teachers have long feared they will be in the firing line as scapegoats as a result.

The DfE may also choose to blame Ofqual for any results fiasco, particularly as it could frame the incoming new chief regulator Jo Saxton in September as a fresh start following difficulties with the regulator over the past two years.

Pressure on universities

Some universities have given out fewer offers this year in anticipation of inflation and a surge in the numbers of students getting required grades. But other Russell Group institutions have capacity to absorb higher numbers through pupils applying at the last minute via clearing, leading to a large rise in the proportion of uni students.

However, with a shortage of part-time work or travel available, it is unlikely students will opt for a gap year or defer their places. With more students getting higher grades as well as more appeals expected, there could be a lot of pressure on HE.

GCSEs may show less inflation than expected

GCSEs may show a lower level of grade inflation than at A level, as more pupils are taking them in each school and they are therefore easier to standardise across the board.

The stakes are also lower for pupils - apart from perhaps where GCSE maths and English are concerned - pupils' progression into apprenticeship or sixth form college places is less likely to depend on a single grade.

At A level, the difference between a pupil getting a B or A grade could alter their prospects dramatically, which may have led to more generosity from teachers.

A rise in U grades at GCSE?

There was an admittedly small proportion of students who, owing to differential learning loss, will not have had sufficient evidence for a grade. 

In a Tes survey of over 2,800 grading teachers, only just over a quarter (26 per cent) reported that none of their students lacked sufficient evidence to get a grade this year.

Could this mean a rise in grade U at GCSE or A level? Schools will have tried their hardest to secure all possible evidence that could go towards a grade, but there could be a slight rise in Us for students who have simply missed too much learning time this 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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