Exams 2021: Externally-set questions to be ‘optional’ for schools

autumn exams

Schools won’t be forced to use externally-set questions when determining their pupils’ GCSE and A-level grades this year, the government has confirmed.

Teacher assessments will be used to issue grades to pupils this summer after formal exams were cancelled following partial school closures.

A joint consultation by Ofqual and the Department for Education last month asked whether exam boards should “make available a set of papers” to aid teachers in reaching grades, and also asked whether their use should be mandated.

But the proposal for the papers, dubbed “mini-exams”, was met with hostility in some quarters and has been watered-down in the government’s final plans.

Exam boards will instead provide “optional” questions for each subject, which teachers can use alongside other evidence – such as coursework and mock exam results.

The government is due to publish its full response to the consultation later today, but has released some details in advance.

It has confirmed that it is proceeding with plans to have pupils appeal to schools first if they suspect an error in their grades.

It has also been announced that for the second year in a row, a full autumn exam series will be held for students who want to improve their grades.

Results days have also been moved to August 10 for A-levels and August 12 for GCSEs, later than the early-July date tabled in the consultation.

‘Flexibility’ for teachers

Exam boards will provide optional assessment materials to schools by Easter. Teachers will be able to pick from a range of subject-specific questions. The materials do not have to be used in timed conditions, unlike exams. Teachers will then have until June 18 to submit their grades.

It comes after only 26 per cent of students who responded to the consultation agreed that externally set papers should be provided. Schools were more supportive – 69 per cent of teachers agreed, as did 72 per cent of school leaders.

Dr Mary Bousted

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary at the National Education Union, said the process set out today is “better than the original consultation proposals” and is likely “the least worst option available”.

But she warned there were question marks over how “extra work necessary to facilitate grading will be dealt with”.

“Substantial time will need to be set aside for the initial assessments and gradings and then the internal school moderation processes; it may well be that extra staff need to be employed to release teachers for this important work.”

Sample and ‘risk-based’ checks

Schools will have their internal quality assurance processes signed off by exam boards prior to grade submission.

In June and July, exam boards will randomly pick schools to sample the evidence they used. There will be more targeted scrutiny where exam boards identify “cause for concern”.

Risk-based checks will look a range of criteria, from changes to entry patterns, to new schools.

Also, if they have results that are unusual, it could trigger a visit by the exam board, although this could be virtual.

Concerns over grade inflation

Schools Week understands the DfE is hoping the quality assurance process will prevent substantial grade inflation this year by picking up on extremely high grades.

But the Education Policy Institute warned that “risk remains” in the plan.

“There is still a very high risk that we will see inconsistences in the grades among different pupils and schools,” said chief executive Natalie Perera.

“Without timely and detailed guidance for schools on how this year’s grades should be benchmarked against previous years, and with classroom assessments only being optional, there is a significant risk that schools will take very different approaches to grading.”

Simon Lebus

‘No harder to get grades’

Simon Lebus, Ofqual’s interim chief regulator, said the aim is to “make it no harder overall for this year’s students to receive a particular grade than students in other years”.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson, said the government was providing the “fairest possible system” for pupils “asking those who know them best – their teachers – to determine their grades, with our sole aim to make sure all young people can progress to the next stage of their education or career”.

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One comment

  1. So should this mini exam be used to help us come up with a grade that a student would have got if there was a real exam or what they would have got if there wasn’t a pandemic, or to grade what they know now?