Education secretary Nicky Morgan has intervened after complaints from ministers and MPs about “the perceived harshness and unfairness” of the exam system’s approach to sick pupils, TES has learned.
There are concerns that too many pupils who miss exams because of illness or injury are ending up without grades. Now Ms Morgan has asked exams regulator Ofqual to look at alternative options.
The watchdog is proposing that students who are absent through illness could get certificates with “estimated grades”. Under the current system, some pupils receive “special consideration” towards full grades (see box, opposite).
Performance on the day
But senior figures in the exams industry, and schools, say the problem is growing as a direct result of recent Conservative reforms to GCSEs and A levels.
“It’s a growing problem because the terminal nature of exams means more emphasis is placed on how you perform on one morning,” said Pepe Di’Iasio, headteacher of Wales High School in Sheffield. “Previously, if a student was ill or unable to perform [in the exam], the exam board would have more information about them. If you’re ill, it can have a massive negative impact and distort what’s been many years of hard work.”
Ofqual documents reveal that ministers and MPs have written to the regulator to “complain about the perceived harshness and unfairness” of exam boards’ approach to sick pupils.
Headteachers and senior figures in the exam system link the issue to the government’s decision to replace modular GCSEs and A levels with linear ones, which took effect for qualifications taught from September 2012 and examined in 2014.
According to guidance from the Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents exam boards, candidates can be given “special consideration” and receive a grade if they miss an exam because of illness or injury.
But in most cases, this only applies if they have already completed half the assessment, which, under the new linear system, far fewer students will have accomplished by the time that exam season arrives.
A senior figure in the exams system agreed that the problem had grown because of the move to linear exams.
“You used to have over two years to sit units, so if you suddenly became ill, you had banked a certain percentage [of your marks] and, using what you had banked, there was a statistical way of working out [your grade],” they told TES. “Now, it’s more final.”
Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, said: “It looks as though this is something that hasn’t been fully thought through, and ministers and MPs are right to draw attention to it. It could become more of a problem [in a system of linear assessment].”
Papers from an Ofqual board meeting earlier this year state: “Most years we receive letters, often from ministers and MPs, about GCSE and A-level students who were unable to attempt all or any of their assessments because of serious illness or injury at the time of the summer exams.
“As a result, they have not been awarded the qualification(s) for which they had been working. The letters complain about the perceived harshness and unfairness of the approach the exam boards take.
“We have encouraged the exam boards to consider possible alternative approaches and we will be discussing these with them. The secretary of state has also asked about different options.”
A new approach
An Ofqual spokeswoman said that the watchdog had held talks with exam boards about a new approach in which boards could issue “estimated grades” to pupils.
“We do not prescribe the process and procedures that exam boards use; they must decide their own approach,” she added.
A Department for Education spokesman said: “In cases where candidates are not able to take their final examinations due to serious illness, Ofqual has been working with the exam boards to ensure that these young people are treated fairly.
“This is in no way related to our reforms to GCSEs and A levels, ensuring they are robust and rigorous to match the best education systems in the world.
“The move towards linear qualifications, with a single exam at the end of the course instead of a series of modular assessments, will allow greater focus on high-quality teaching and depth of understanding, encouraging students to see links between different topics.”
For tips on keeping your cool during exam season, see this week’s feature on page 24-30
Estimated grades ‘could offer a compromise for sick pupils’
Ofqual has proposed to exam boards that they should start issuing “estimated grades” to pupils who have missed GCSE or A-level exams because of “extreme cases” of illness or injury.
Under the measure, pupils who missed exams would be given a set of grades that would appear on their certificate as “estimated grades”. But those who had taken less than half a qualification because of illness still wouldn’t receive a full grade.
A spokeswoman for the regulator told TES that this approach was not used at the moment, but had been proposed in response to complaints that exam boards’ approach to pupils who missed exams was unfair.
“In the most extreme cases, we’re reassuring exam boards that we’re not going to be harsh on them should they do something sensible such as [issue] an estimated grade,” she said.
TES understands that boards are still considering the idea.
Simon Elliott, headteacher of Forest Gate Community School in Newham, East London, said he was pleased that Ofqual was looking at the issue as exam season loomed.
However, he added: “I think that the exam boards are stuck between a rock and a hard place because there are definitely children who are badly affected by illness. But if exam boards open the floodgates, they’re going to get a lot of spurious claims from children that want an easy way out.”