Unions: Allow grade inflation next year - but not as much as 2020

Education unions have said it would be “unconscionable” for this year’s exam results to be pegged to grades achieved in 2019, saying some grade inflation should again be allowed.

In normal exam years, regulator Ofqual uses a system called comparable outcomes to restrict grade inflation by ensuring a similar percentage of pupils achieve the same grades each year.

However, no decision has been made over whether comparable outcomes will kick back in for the 2021 exams series following this summer’s fiasco – which saw pupils awarded the more generous centre assessment grades.

At GCSE, for instance, the proportion of grades 7, 8 and 9 awarded to year 11 pupils in 2020 rose from 21.9 per cent last year to 27.6 per cent.

It has left the regulator facing a tough call on whether to use comparable outcomes again, and if so, which set of grades to peg them to.

But the unions, in a letter to schools minister Nick Gibb, have said comparable outcomes “could be retained”, adding: “Grade boundaries could be set using the usual comparable outcomes process as a starting point, and then altered by a number of marks to increase the percentage achieving that grade to an agreed level.

“That level could be somewhere between what was seen in 2019 and 2020.”

The letter states such a system would “retain a degree of comparability and limit the extent of grade ‘inflation’ permitted”, it would also recognise “the disrupted learning students have experienced this year”.

However it warns the system would only work if other changes were also enacted, such as contingency plans for pupils unable to take exams, giving pupils more choice over the questions they answer and priority testing for pupils in key exam years.

The joint proposals are from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), the NASUWT teachers’ union, the National Education Union (NEU), and the National Governance Association (NGA).

They were submitted to Gibb along with officials from the Department for Education and exams watchdog Ofqual ahead of a meeting over exam plans today.

It comes as the Sunday Times reported yesterday that the government’s Plan B – should pupils be unable to sit tests – is to allow these pupils to sit a single exam paper later in the year.

Meanwhile, the paper reported the Plan C would be to use teachers’ predictions of pupils’ performance, but this would only come into effect if exams could not be staged next year.

Schools Week asked Ofqual if comparable outcomes would be deployed during next year’s exams last month. A spokesperson for the regulator said they “want to be clear about our approach as soon as possible.

“Our job is to maintain standards and also to take account of government policy. In these exceptional times we think it especially important now to hear the views of schools and of higher and further education, alongside government.

“We expect to follow our usual consultation processes, once we have proposals to make.”

Exams are set to go ahead next year, but the government is yet to announce contingency plans should there be lockdowns or if pupils have to self-ioslate.

The unions said such plans could involve schools running “formal staged assessments”, undertaken by pupils under exam conditions.

The letter states: “In order to ensure consistency across schools and colleges, the exam boards could either develop these staged assessments themselves, or signpost centres to acceptable pre-existing assessments that could be used for this purpose”.

Unions say these stages assessments “along with other agreed evidence such as coursework” could be used to determine CAGs as a back-up for those unable to sit exams or for those who suffered “very significant disruptions to their learning”.

The suggested contingency plans also include the development of ‘reserve papers’ for pupils unable to sit exams on a particular date, but able to sit them shortly afterwards.