GCSEs and A-levels 2021: 8 things you need to know from grades guidance


The Joint Council for Qualifications has finally confirmed what schools need to do to award GCSE and A-level grades this summer.

Exams have been cancelled due to the ongoing impact of the coronavirus pandemic, with teachers deciding students’ grade.

For key dates, see our story here.

We take a look at what you need to know from the guidance…


1. Heads must submit exams policy next month

Schools have to submit a centre policy by April 30. This will be one policy document and a summary, even if schools have entries in more than one exam board.

It should include roles and responsibilities of staff as well as the training they’ve been given to produce grades. The document should also explain the approach being taken to determine grades, details on internal quality assurance and how comparisons will be made with previous years’ results.

Heads should also set out how they are ensuring objectivity in their decisions, how they will retain evidence and data and how they can ensure the students’ work is their own.

It should also include potential conflict of interest policies, such as where a teacher’s relative is a student. JCQ has provided a template for schools to use.


2. Small subject departments can team up with neighbouring school

JCQ says that “additional support” and, where appropriate, “quality assurance measures” should be provided for newly qualified teachers or single person departments.

“This will be agreed on a case-by-case basis but may include, for example, senior leaders or the head of centre validating the outcomes after comparing with outcomes in associated subject areas where applicable,” it reads.

“In the case of small subject departments, heads of department may choose to collaborate with neighbouring centres for additional support.”


3. Virtual visits if exam boards not happy with policy

Boards will carry out a review of all centre policy summaries, and random quality checks of the full policy may happen.

Where boards have “concerns” about the arrangements in place, schools may be contacted to arrange a virtual visit to “clarify points” in the policy.

Schools would only be contacted by one exam board, and it may be one they do not have entries with, to ease the burden on centres.

The visits would take place in May and June, most likely over Microsoft Teams or Zoom.

Centres do not need to wait for approval to begin their grading processes though. They will receive an email confirming if their policy has been accepted or that there is need for follow up contact.

gcses4. ‘Failure to engage’ in quality checks could be investigated

In the final stage of quality assurance, exam boards will carry out sampling after the submission of grades on June 18.

Targeted sampling will be informed by the outcomes of the centre policy checks, significant divergence in previous exam cohort results and where boards had concerns about their policy.

Random sampling will ensure appropriate subject, qualification, geographical and centre-type coverage by the exam boards. It will involve reviewing evidence by “subject specialists”.

Exam boards will decide whether to accept the grades or undertake further view, but this may lead to the “withholding” of results.

If centres fail to engage with the quality assurance, it may jeopardise the “timely issue” of results to students and may lead to exam boards undertaking “further investigation”.


5. 5-step process for decided grades

JCQ offers five steps that may be “helpful” for deciding grades. The first is considering what has been taught and whether content has been covered “deeply or superficially”.

The second is collecting the evidence, acknowledging some flexibility may be needed where students have missed lessons or assessments for valid reasons, but it must be documented by the centre.

The third is around evaluating the quality of evidence and fourth is establishing whether the proposed range of evidence is appropriate for all students.

Finally, grade decisions must not factor in “potential”. A grade based on a predicted trajectory or target grade is also not permitted.


6. Exam board materials by March 31

Schools will be sent additional assessment materials by March 31 for all GCSEs, AS and A-levels except for art and design.

The questions don’t have to be sat under exam conditions and activities can be done remotely, for instance if a child is self-isolating.

Schools will also receive “additional support materials” by April 12, which may include past examiners’ reports and marked examples of work from past papers.

The JCQ guidance states that, if schools believe an outcome doesn’t reflect a student’s usual level of performance – for example because of the conditions the student completed the work in – it doesn’t have to be included in their range of evidence.

“Other evidence could be used, or the student could be given another opportunity to complete a different piece of work,” JCQ said.


7. Same activities should be sat on the same day

Because the materials are also being published online on April 19, they do not need to be kept securely like exam papers.

But JCQ said the extent to which students should know what activity they will complete in advance “should be considered”.

“Additionally, if it is decided that all students in a cohort sit the same activity under test conditions, this should happen on the same day to maximise fairness for all students in a centre.”

Because the materials are groups of questions and may vary in breadth and demand, there will be no grade boundaries available and “no requirement for the mark from an assessment to be converted into a grade”.

Instead, the mark should be “considered alongside other pieces of evidence”.


8. Deliberate disclosure of mark schemes ‘is malpractice’

Exam boards will investigate “credible” allegations of malpractice or issues reported from the monitoring processes that “raise concerns about a failure to follow the published requirements for determining grades”.

They list examples including where grades created for students who have not been taught sufficient content to provide the basis for the grade.

Another example is if a teacher deliberately provides inappropriate levels of support before or during an assessment, “including deliberate disclosure of mark schemes and assessment materials to support an inflated grade”.

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One comment

  1. Malcolm Smith

    I would like to know whether schools have indeed been sent the Exam Boards’ additional assessment materials by March 31, and the “additional support materials” by April 12. Any slippage on this would seem to make things even more difficult for schools and staff.

    It is very difficult for students to know exactly what their grade assessments are to be based on. They do know they’ve got 6 weeks of exams coming up, however, because those timetables have been given.