The gap in learning loss across different regions is “one of the most intractable issues” and any potential solutions are “fraught with difficulty”, Ofqual has warned.
The sobering assessment on the potential for government to come up with a plan to make exams fair for pupils in the hardest hit Covid areas follows the government failing to provide any plans in its exam measures announced today.
Dame Glenys Stacey, the interim chief regulator, said while the measures overall “will go a long way to mitigate the impact of the pandemic”, differential learning loss is “one of the most intractable issues”.
The government will establish an expert group to examine proposals in a bid to level the playing field, but education secretary Gavin Williamson said they won’t report back until the Spring.
Stacey, in a letter to Williamson today, warned: “Any further steps to address this issue through exams and assessments are fraught with difficulty, and yet changes to the exam and assessment system alone are not enough to address the significant risks to public confidence this presents.”
Kate Green, Labour’s shadow education secretary, told the House of Commons today that the exams announcement still bakes in “fundamental inequities between students who have suffered different levels of disruption to their learning”.
Ofqual has ruled out considering regional grading as a solution. Stacey said it would create “different kinds of unfairness… Even in areas with high infection rates, there are schools where students have access to high quality remote learning, and some schools report not being behind at all.”
Warning over 2021 exam challenges
Stacey also raised difficulties the regulator now faces with awarding grades as generous as in 2020, saying Ofqual must be “mindful” of “undermining public confidence in the credibility of grades.
“It will be important that grade boundaries – particularly at the lower grades – are not so low as to be implausible,” she added.
Ofqual said that exam boards will use prior attainment data – from national key stage 2 or GCSE data – to set grade boundaries to produce outcomes in line with 2020.
Stacey also said that developing contingency papers for pupils who may miss an exam in such short time scales “increases the risks of errors”.
There will be additional pressure on the timing of marking and delivering results, she added, warning that the contingency results “might have to be delivered slightly later than the scheduled results days”.
Williamson won’t rule out extra measures
Conservative MP Robert Halfon, chair of the education select committee, questioned whether the government was “baking” grade inflation “into the system” by allowing more generous grades again next year.
But Williamson said it would have been “unjust” for students to have grades that were substantially lower than 2020.
He also added they will continue to monitor the challenges of the pandemic and said if extra measures were needed for next year’s exams then “we would certainly not be blinkered or ignore such other measures that are needed”.
Stacey also signalled that attention is now being turned to the “potential” impact on 2022 students, adding: “We are considering the resilience of the system in the longer term.”
Why optionality, dropping papers and mocks were ruled out
The exams regulator has also explained its reasons for dropping ideas such as optionality and mocks.
In a research paper published today, Ofqual found that providing options can increase pressure on some students who may worry about choosing the “wrong” options, or want to change their minds part way through.
On allowing pupils to drop papers, Stacey said it would create an “uneven playing field” as the four exam board specifications are often structured differently.
Some had suggested mocks in spring, but Stacey said it could take up valuable time learning and “we are not sure [students] would appreciate early spring mocks”.