Exams

Exams: Stick or twist, we need quick decisions from the new DfE 

It is right to return to pre-Covid grade boundaries as soon as possible, writes Geraint Jones, but we now know we can reduce the pressure of exam season and we should

It is right to return to pre-Covid grade boundaries as soon as possible, writes Geraint Jones, but we now know we can reduce the pressure of exam season and we should

11 Sep 2022, 5:00

As the dust settles from this year’s exam season and thoughts turn towards the next, we find ourselves in a stick-or-twist situation: Do we continue with support measures for another year, or do we move to the second half of Ofqual’s post-Covid recovery plan and go back to a pre-pandemic approach? Whether to show faith in the system and back our teachers for a quick return to normal will be an early test of the new DfE team’s mettle.  

This year’s grading arrangements rightly acknowledged the extraordinary impact of the pandemic on students’ learning. But by next summer most students will likely have had two years of ‘normal’ education – the length of a GCSE or A level course – so there is a strong reason to bring grade boundaries in line with pre-pandemic levels.  

As reported in these pages, 73 per cent of GCSEs were marked at grades 4 and above this year – down from 76.9 per cent in 2021 when grades were based on teacher assessments but still some way from the 67 per cent of the last pre-pandemic exams. Similarly, 26 per cent of students received the top grades of 7 and above – higher than 2019 (20.6 per cent) and lower than 2021 (30 per cent). 

At A level, the proportion of A and A* grades (36.4 per cent) also fell in comparison with 2021 (44.8 per cent) but remain much higher than 2019 (25.2 per cent).  

So one of the concerns about removing the assessment stabilisers is that grades will fall. But that is okay. The past couple of years have been extraordinary, and what matters most is that the grade system in any particular year is fair and enables students to move forward to their next stage of education, training or work. In the majority of cases, students will be competing against their in-year peers for those places, and the fact that comparisons with pandemic years are unreliable is well understood by all. 

Some students may not achieve what they hope, and we should not be afraid of that kind of normal disappointment. Because just as the exam system is returning to something closer to normality, so too will the experiences of results day. 

What must not be lost is a focus on students’ mental health

But as the new ministerial team sets about making this decision – and quickly so that there is time to implement it – what must not be lost is a focus on students’ mental health and wellbeing. The pressure cooker environment of exams has only been exacerbated by Covid. It was already there before, and it surprises me that we are looking to return almost without question to wholly exam-based grades in spite of some of the successes of the past two years.  

If anything, more should be done to evolve out of our reliance on examinations. Judging two years of learning by a student’s performance on one day ramps up the pressure. We could take the heat out by having at least some form of teacher assessment (which worked well in 2021) or by taking a student’s coursework over the year into consideration. We could also evaluate whether some of the measures introduced in 2022 create a fairer system so that grades truly reflect a student’s ability.

As outlined by Ofqual, these interventions were never meant to be permanent. There was always going to be a time when the plaster needed to be pulled off, and we have reached that point. What heads, teachers, students, and parents need now is clarity and a definitive plan so they can adequately prepare over the coming year.  

That plan should be about delivering the fairest system we can, not just a return to a comfortable normal. And a ‘fair system’ means that all children are given every chance to demonstrate what they know and can do.

The impact of Covid will be felt for years to come, but its legacy on assessment can be a positive one if the system recognises the importance of giving merit over the duration of a student’s course.

Not only because it’s fairer, but because it enables more accurate grading should learning be disrupted again in future.

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