Coronavirus: Six things we learned from Ofqual about exams in 2020 and 2021

Exams were the focus of an education select committee hearing this week, with senior staff appearing from the exams’ regulator Ofqual.

Here’s what we found out.

 

1. Consultation on 2021 exam plans due before summer break

Sally Collier, the chief regulator of Ofqual, told MPs schools needed to know what was happening with next year’s exams “before the summer break ideally”.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said this week that exams would go ahead in 2021, but it was not known what adjustments would be needed to make the system work for pupils, many of whom have had their education disrupted.

Collier said consultation would start “in the coming weeks”.

“Schools and teachers, they need to know very quickly – and exam boards – before the summer break ideally, as to what’s going to happen in September.”

 

2. There are ‘safeguards’ to pick up on teacher bias

Ofqual has said it will not change teacher-assessed grades to take into account unconscious bias, leading to concerns that some pupils, such as those from ethnic minority backgrounds, will face discrimination.

Dr Michelle Meadows, Ofqual’s deputy chief regulator, said it would “look at how those centre assessment grades vary by various protected characteristics”.

“Then of course there’ll be the standardisation process, by which we will adjust outcomes for schools and colleges to set a fair standard, a level playing field. And then we’ll want to look again at what those differences look like compared to what we see in historical data.”

Collier said grade predictions allowed schools to consider pupils’ individual circumstances: “there are safeguards in the prediction process itself”.

 

3. But no ‘easy answers’ on proving discrimination…

The regulator said it will challenge grades based on claims of bias, but campaigners say it will be hard for pupils to prove this.

Robert Halton, the committee’s chair, said he found it “incomprehensible” that a pupil from a disadvantaged family “is supposed to know if there is bias or discrimination in terms of their grading results and then undertake some kind of appeal”.

Collier acknowledged a route was needed for any student who felt they had been discriminated against, “but … I don’t claim to have any easy answers”.

 

4. …and it’s down to schools to make sure pupils don’t lose out

Collier said the first port of call for pupils challenging grades would be their school.

“This is new, this is novel, there are over five million grades coming in, there could have been a mistake.

“There is a route then that the school, as in any other year, would put in their appeal to the exam board, the process would be checked, the evidence would be looked at and the mistake can be corrected.”

But if an appeal “goes through the system and students and schools don’t feel there’s been fairness, they can appeal to us. The process is in place. We need to make sure it’s as accessible as possible.”

Collier will also consider calls for an appeals helpline for parents.

 

5. Standardisation system has been tested for impact on all school types

There have been concerns that the standardisation system’s use of schools’ previous results could discriminate against pupils at newer or improving schools. Meadows told MPs that to address this, Ofqual has been testing a “whole variety of different approaches”.

That included looking at 2019 data to test which approach “most accurately predicts the grades that students actually got”. It found that “particular approaches that work well on average also work well for these different school types”.

“But what we can’t predict is the unknown, those changes that may well have happened if exams had gone ahead this year.

“So yes, we too have heard from schools for whom this year would have been ‘the year’.”

 

6. There will be a ‘full programme of evaluation’

Earlier in the session, Lee Elliot Major, a professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, spoke of the need for a “systematic review of how these results play out for different students”.

Meadows said that Ofqual was “absolutely committed” to an evaluation of what was done this summer.

A “full programme of evaluation” that would be published in the autumn would look at the impact on attainment gaps, survey teachers and talk to students to “really get under the lid of this year’s process”.