Teacher-assessed grades could have consequences for under-represented students – not to mention their effect on teachers, writes Billy Huband-Thompson

Following last year’s results day botch job, Gavin Williamson has promised to “put our trust in teachers, rather than algorithms” this summer. The slogan sounds superficially attractive. But in practice, teacher-assessed grades (TAGs) have passed the buck to schools and insulated the government from any fallout come August.

The rationale for TAGs is that considerable teacher-collated evidence will give pupils, parents, education destinations and employers greater confidence in awarded grades. However, this “Ofqual are coming, look busy” approach is the worst of both worlds, keeping the pressures associated with high-stakes accountability without the benefits to reliability and validity.

TAGs have received widespread criticism, with concerns about workload implications, bias in teacher assessment, insufficient support from exam boards and inevitable variation between schools. However, there is another part to this story. Research evidence casts doubt on whether TAGs can emulate the important signalling role that regular exam grades play for young people and the destinations they apply to.

Grades are a key influence on young people’s post-16/18 decision making. Academic achievement continues to be a key determinant of higher education (HE) participation. That said, this causal mechanism may be complex. In their 2013 analysis, Chowdry et al. noted that if, for instance, a pupil feels that HE is “not for people like them”, these anticipated barriers may affect school achievement and, in turn, HE participation. Moreover, even once we control for grades, a gap remains between the HE attendance of socio-economically disadvantaged pupils and their peers.  

Nonetheless, grades are central to HE participation and any disruption or appeal-induced delay could thwart young people’s post-18 progression.

Exams’ signalling quality may be particularly important for those less represented in HE

Exams’ signalling quality may be particularly important for pupils who are less represented in higher education. A recent series of interviews with Oxbridge students from under-represented backgrounds found that national assessment assured young people that their university was for them. As one working-class student explained, “I’ve always been smart for my school… and then I had this, like, countrywide validation for it.” So while UCAS experienced a surge in accepted applicants last year, it is unclear whether TAGs will give young people the same sense of grade affirmation or what this might entail for post-16/18 decision-making.

Grades are also a common requirement for internships, employment and other routes, with a GCSE grade 4 in English and Maths a widespread prerequisite. And concerns about TAGs have also reached the labour market. In a series of focus groups conducted by Public First, some young people were anxious that “employers might look at their grades differently than other years because they did not sit exams”.  

To allay these fears in a challenging labour market, we must emphasise a more positive story, recognising the character pupils have displayed to continue learning in such challenging circumstances. At The Centre for Education and Youth, we saw these qualities first-hand during a student roundtable co-hosted with the Education Policy Institute.

We are currently researching how young people have been supported with post-16/18 decision-making during the pandemic. Throughout our fieldwork, commissioned by Aspire to HE, we have seen schools draw on their understanding of their communities to help pupils make informed choices about their futures. So while the uncertainty surrounding the value of TAGs means that it has fallen on schools to reassure pupils of their achievements, there are also reasons to be confident about their next steps.

Our exams system is far from perfect. One mark can make the difference between a first-choice post-18 destination and uncertainty; between meaningful work and unemployment. There are also important questions about graduate credentialism and the importance we attach to grades. These issues require our attention in the longer term.  

More immediately, however, the above evidence suggests that burdensome TAGs will fall short of the signalling quality exams provide. So in the first instance, plans should be put in place to offer young people wide-ranging support with post-16/18 transitions in preparation for any fallout. Then, while recognising the extraordinary efforts teachers have made, we must ensure they are never put in this position again.