Our exam mitigations have fairness at their heart

Some will question our decisions on mitigations and grade boundaries, writes Jo Saxton, but they are proportionate and focused on fairness for students

Some will question our decisions on mitigations and grade boundaries, writes Jo Saxton, but they are proportionate and focused on fairness for students

4 Feb 2022, 5:00


Sitting with a group of year 11s from Manchester recently, I was struck by just how determined they were to sit exams this year and show what they know and can do. Another group in East Yorkshire told me about exams they had just sat as part of the January series, and talked about the experience as an important part of growing up and getting back to some semblance of ‘normality’. 

Of course, we’re not back to ‘normal’ yet. Which is why we have prepared an innovative package of support for students. They have faced considerable disruption these past two years and I can – hand on heart – say that the scale of adaptations to exams and formal assessments looks that squarely in the eye.

When it comes to grading, some have advocated a hard return to 2019 grades this summer while others have argued for continuity with the 2021 standard. For me, the decision must be driven only by what is the fairest option for students.

A leap back to 2019 didn’t pass that test; It would be tone deaf to the challenges students and schools have faced and would have done little to provide a safety net for those who have had the toughest time through the pandemic.

UCAS and employers told us they wanted to see grades that were closer to the currency they are used to, and further education colleges are also struggling to make offers without clarity about what grades will look like this year. But they all recognised that it would not be right to implement this in one go.

As for repeating the standard for 2021, we know this would likely lead to universities devising alternative entry arrangements and raising the grades on which offers are based. This again fails the fairness test for students, especially for those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

Our approach to grading will iron out some of the anomalies of the past two years

So we will not go fully back to pre-pandemic grading this year. Our approach to grading in this transitional year will be more generous, and will provide a safety net to students, will iron out some of the anomalies that have come into play in the past two years and will secure consistency between exam boards and subjects. 

Alongside this, students will benefit from other adaptations to exams. This will include choices of topics or content in some GCSEs and a formulae or equations sheet for GCSE maths, physics and combined science. As was confirmed last summer, vocational and technical qualifications have been adapted too.

On Monday, exam boards publish advance information on the focus of exams in most GCSE and all AS and A-level subjects. This is a departure in the qualifications space, and not something we would have ever countenanced in normal times. But with fairness for students as a compass, we wanted to make the exam experience less daunting, while preserving the integrity of the content coverage and the assessments themselves. Published on exams boards’ websites on February 7, and covering more than 300 specifications, the whole point is to provide as universal as possible a revision aid for students.

Next week, some will no doubt say we haven’t gone far enough, and others that we have gone too far. But while this is something ‘new’ to get to grips with, it’s clear to me from talking to students that they know it will help them make the most of the next few months, as well as make the exams less daunting. 

For many, 2022 will be the first time they have sat a formal, public exam. Advance information represents a unique coming together of everyone across the qualification system to act in their interests. 

As you absorb and digest the advance information over the coming weeks, we want to hear from you and your students about how it is working in practice. With around 15 weeks until the start of the summer exams, every week will count. We hope this provides valuable support as we navigate this time together.

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