Understandably, students and their parents may be unsure about how their grades are arrived at this year and what that means for them.

Some of them may have questions for their teachers, schools and colleges on results day. The prospect of offering advice may seem a little daunting, given the very different systems in place for this year.

At the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), we want to help bring clarity to this year’s arrangements as much as possible for students, parents and teachers around the country, to help build awareness so students understand their options and feel confident to take their next steps.


The standardisation model

With the cancellation of exams due to COVID-19 understandably stressful for young people, it was crucial to find a path which would allow them to progress with learning, training or career entry.

As in any year, some students may not receive the grades they are expecting, but we do believe that the vast majority of students this year will get the grades they have been working towards, enabling them to progress.

In England, there have been specific concerns that Ofqual’s standardisation model might lower the centre assessed grades (CAGs) submitted by schools and colleges. There are a few important things to note about standardisation:

– Understandably, there are early indications that some teachers may have leaned towards submitting optimistic predictions. This was not an attempt at inflating grades for better results, but likely due to teachers trying to do the best they could for their students, using the evidence they had available. The timescale meant there simply wasn’t time to train all teachers to produce CAGs in an identical way.

– The purpose of standardisation is to ensure that grades are broadly in line with previous years and reflect the prior attainment of the cohort of students. The CAGs and rank order remain at the core of the awarding. Ofqual’s early analysis of the data shows that A-level CAGs average 12 percentage points better than 2019 results, whereas GCSE CAGs average 9 percentage points better than in 2019. That level of improvement in a single year has never happened before, and would greatly undermine the value of those grades if they weren’t standardised to levels that reflect what usual statistical improvements would predict.

– This means that some final grades will be different to the CAGs. However, Ofqual’s early analysis shows that the majority of grades will be the same as the CAGs, and almost all grades will either be the same as the CAGs or within one grade (either higher or lower).


Options for next steps

The key thing this year is that, regardless of the grade, if results enable a student to progress on to their next phase of education or employment, they should be encouraged to do so and congratulated on their achievement.

While most students will be able to progress on to their next steps, those who don’t have the grades they need should speak to their school or college first, to understand their options. JCQ has published a useful decision tree infographic to break down options for students.


Autumn exam series

In England, students who would like a chance to obtain better grades can talk to their school or college about sitting the autumn examination series. However, it’s particularly important to remind students who are able to use their results to progress on to their next phase, that the option to sit autumn exams will entail further revision and time, perhaps on top of continued education or employment, or may force a delay to their ability to take their next steps.

For potential university students, this will be an exceptional year in which a delay to entry may present very few alternatives (such as a gap year for travel, employment or work experience). Whilst the university experience will also be different this year, it will still be rewarding and personally challenging. For GCSE students, their results will enable them to move on to further education and training.

For all students, progression, if possible, offers a way forward towards independence and further learning.



In England, Ofqual is still making final decisions on appeals, but at the moment, the proposed grounds for appeal are specifically related to the processing of the CAG and rank order and, as in any year, students have to appeal through their school or college.

Where a school or college believes there was an error in processing a grade, or that the exam board used the wrong information, they can appeal on the student’s behalf. In addition, schools or colleges can appeal if they think an error was made in the processing of a whole cohort. JCQ will be publishing an appeals booklet on our website shortly after Ofqual publishes their final decisions on appeals. We will also release an infographic to help students understand this year’s appeals system.

Any concerns around bias must go through the school or college’s internal complaints process and if there is substantive evidence, it must be reported as malpractice.


Requests for centre-assessed grades

Some candidates may request their CAGs to inform their decision about their next steps. When this occurs, it is important to remember that it would constitute malpractice to release CAGs prior to results day, and requests should be carefully managed with data protection issues in mind. There is helpful guidance on how to approach this from either the Confederation for School Trusts (CST) or the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).


Celebrating next steps

Regardless of results, it is important to remind students that they aren’t alone in having to receive grades differently this year – their fellow students across the country have faced the same situation, and universities and employers recognise this.

Even though students didn’t have the exam experience, they can be confident that grades reflect their work and achievements and have been awarded as fairly as possible to ensure they’re ready for what comes next.


The Joint Council for Qualifications is a membership organisation representing the eight largest exam boards.