A new fiasco in the making? The flaws with Ofqual’s 2021 exams plan

Long read

The government has finally published its consultation revealing the plan to replace exams this year. In some quarters it has done little to quell the fear that we’re heading for another fiasco – but this time, with teachers left to cop the blame. Schools Week investigates …


Move over mutant algorithm, we have a new scapegoat…

A key concern is that teachers are being primed to be the fall guy – in place of the so-called “mutant” algorithm which politicians blamed for last year’s fiasco.

Teachers will be tasked with coming up with a grade for each pupil based on evidence including coursework and mini-exams.

While teachers have been promised support and guidance from exam boards, there are big concerns about how any sort of consistency across grades can be ensured.

There is also anger that this plan B hadn’t been enacted earlier in the year, rather than cobbled together this month.

Dr Mary Bousted

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary at the National Education Union, said collecting evidence across the country will prove “much harder now” than if schools had been supported to do it from the start of the academic year.

Ofqual’s interim chief regulator, Simon Lebus, admitted teachers have a “heavier responsibility” under the plan.

He said the quality assurance arrangements – whereby exam boards sample the approaches and grades set by schools – alongside support from the boards would be “so important” to help teachers in “what is undoubtedly quite a burdensome task”.

But Dame Alison Peacock, chief executive of the Chartered College of Teaching, said the risk is that the “hardworking teaching profession is fed to the lions”.


‘Pandora’s box’ of appeals

Students can appeal to their school, but grades would only be changed if the original judgment was “not legitimate”.

The appeal should be considered by a “competent” person not involved in the assessment, which could include someone from another school.

If a student is still not happy, they can appeal to exam boards – but only if the school has “not acted in line with the exam board’s procedural requirements”, not to challenge the merits of the teacher assessment.

Mary Curnock Cook

Mary Curnock Cook, former chief executive of university admissions service UCAS, said the “sheer volume of appeals might overwhelm the system.”

Tom Middlehurst, curriculum and inspection specialist at heads’ union ASCL, said it could put schools in an “extremely difficult situation” of having to organise an appeals system against “the grades they awarded, when common sense would suggest that this should be done by another body”.

Bousted said a “pandora’s box of appeals” could cause “great anguish and workload for seemingly very little benefit”, but suggested exam boards could instead run the process.

Lebus himself, in an interview with Schools Week, admitted there are concerns over the extra workload, adding an “adversarial appeals process” would put schools in an “invidious position because it can be corrosive of trust and good relations”.

Meanwhile professor Barnaby Lenon, dean of education at the University of Buckingham, who sits on Ofqual’s standards advisory group, warned the timescales to achieve all this are too tight. Ofqual is proposing to bring results day forward, possibly to early July, so that appeals could be submitted immediately.


‘Huge task for exam boards’

Under the proposals, exam boards would set papers for pupils, marked by teachers, to feed into the grading process. Ofqual is mulling over whether to make them compulsory, too.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of heads union ASCL, said the papers would need to be “exceptionally well designed”, adding: “All of this adds up to a huge and complex task for the exam boards.”

The consultation suggested a combination of questions from past papers and new questions could be used.

Past papers have their advantages because exam boards already have the data on how children performed, to use as a comparison to how children perform this year. But they are complete papers and may not evenly cover all the topics students have studied.

It is also understood that the Joint Council for Qualifications has set up a working group to find commonalities between the exam boards to help create guidance.

But Middlehurst highlighted a conflicting issue in the plans. “On one hand, having common assessments would ensure greater consistency in how grades are awarded,” he said. “But on the other hand, it may be more difficult to take into account the differing extents to which students have lost out on learning during the pandemic.”

Lebus reckons the more widely mini-exams are taken the “easier, I think, the task becomes of ensuring fairness across the piece and that students are being held to a consistent standard whatever school or college they are studying in”.


What about learning loss?

There has been little news on who will make up the DfE expert group, announced before Christmas, to help come up with plans on differential learning loss.

Sam Freedman, a former government adviser, said Ofqual has acknowledged a key reason exams had to be cancelled was the “huge and differential loss of learning suffered over the course of the past year”.

Sam Freedman

In last year’s centre-assessed grades, teachers were asked to come up with a grade they thought a student would have achieved had their sat their exams.

This year, Ofqual wants the grade to be based on the teachers’ assessment of how they are performing now.

But Freedman sums it up like this: “In other words, it’s not possible to assess the course but the only way of providing a grade is to assess the course.”

Instead, Freedman says the government should – for A-level students – work with universities to ensure that offers are not conditional on precise grades, “but are much more flexible”.

Universities UK said universities will be actively considering any additional support needed for students to transition, with some universities already announcing they were going to lower A-level requirements.

On the issue of fairness, Lebus said exam boards would be key in providing quality assurance. He also signalled that the ambition is to keep outcomes broadly in line with 2020 and confirmed a final plan will be announced in the week of February 22.

Latest education roles from

Student Support Worker

Student Support Worker

Barnsley College

IT Technician x 2

IT Technician x 2

Barnsley College

Registry Officer

Registry Officer

Barnsley College

Brickwork Trainer

Brickwork Trainer

Barnsley College

Mental Health & Wellbeing Coordinator

Mental Health & Wellbeing Coordinator

Barnsley College

MI Data Administrator – (Temporary)

MI Data Administrator – (Temporary)

Barnsley College

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. Farzana choudhrey

    Think its ridiculous..they are causing more stress on these kids..there lives have already changed drastically. Even as parents we do not know whats happening….exams cancelled..exams going ahead ..instead of exams tests …really don’t play with these kids future..teachers have enough on there plates to..
    Make your minds up and stick to your disisson….we want 100% not ifs or buts …people need answers ….

  2. Umberin Mirza

    I feel exams should be cancelled as there is no way of showing how far each school has reached in its syllabus and the idea of mimicking exams is just more stress for the pupils and their parents who are already so stressed about their own working hours etc. I feel the pupils have already lost out on so much learning from 2020 that it is unfair to do any tests at this stage.

    • Nothing is fair but the closest to fair is to give them an exam with choices. That way students can be tested on something they have covered. My daughter was a victim of the algorithm mapping fiasco last summer for a GCSE they took early, in year 10 – she wasn’t even given her very clearly non inflated predicted grade(which was only one grade above her mock). She wasn’t one of the lucky ones who was automatically given an inflated predicted grade. She had to retake the whole 2 year course (a quarter of which wasn’t taught because of lockdown and for the whole of year 9 she had a supply teacher who hardly turned up) with only a months warning to revise for the retake exam last November and then sit mocks at virtually the same time which she wasn’t able to revise for because she had to focus on revising for her GCSE exam. She has also had time off school from contracting Covid and is also behind with HW, coursework and other assignments because of it. Properly externally monitored Exams are the only chance to get close to fairly showing what they know. It’s logical that course work, at home assessments and homework are open to cheating.

  3. Leah Aiken

    Canceling GCSE exams and awarding predicted grades is the only justified solution. However, students studying IGCSEs have not been given the same consideration. They are being penalized simply for being homeschooled, and are expected to sit their exams as if the pandemic has had no effect on their education (or lack there of). And apparently, their physical safety and mental health is of no consequence.

  4. It’s very evident that this government neither is in control of the situation, and nor does it care. The only way there can be fairness is to ensure that the ‘course work’ and the ‘mini exams’ are scored externally. Internal assessment will only bring in bias.

  5. Beatrice

    On top of all the lack of direction, uncertainty, lost learning and damage to mental health , the failure of the dept education to have plan in place a year after 2020s exam fiasco , is currently inflicting even more pressure on students due to take A levels and GCSEs. In addition to learning new content with little of no support, and a huge increase in homework load , students are now being asked as a contingency to prepare and revise for a raft of ongoing tests/ exams at short notice with little time to revise, schools are asking for art portfolios to be completed 2 months earlier than the original deadline to allow for digital submission now required as an extra task by some exam boards… and these are the lucky ones, other students have lost months of learning and have no resources or support. At the same time students have no idea what / when or how they will be assessed . will the govt please get a grip!

  6. My child’s monitoring grades have all gone down 2 points since PPE results in December, which were pretty good. It appears to be purely based on teacher assessment in the classroom (they receive no homework and their recent tests have not been marked yet) and some have already been subject to mistakes by the school computer, at a time when he has just applied to 6th form. This worries me as I don’t understand how the grading has been done. His highest mark by far in his PPEs was on a paper that was sent off to be marked externally. I’m worried there will be little, if any, external peer review in the 2021 GCSE grades.