How will teachers decide exam grades in England this summer?

After cancelling this summer’s A-level, GCSE, BTec and vocation qualifications, the government in England has finally confirmed that teachers will award final grades.

Why has it taken so long?

The government said that schools would remain open and exams would go ahead this year. But the strength of the second wave this winter, and the emergence of dangerous new variants of the Covid-19 virus, meant that schools had to close for an extended period, which also put paid to hopes of in-person exams this spring. The government had no fall-back plan and so had to commission Ofqual, the exam regulator for England, to hurriedly put together a replacement.

What happens next?

Students in England taking exams including GCSEs, A-levels and BTecs and other classroom-based qualifications will have their results assessed by their schools and colleges, with a deadline of 18 June for assessments to be submitted to exam boards.

How will results be announced?

Teachers are expected to sit down with individual students and explain the evidence they considered before submitting their assessments. But students won’t know their final grade until publication date, which is to be 10 August for A-levels and 12 August for GCSEs, with results for BTecs and vocational and technical qualifications to be announced in the same week.

How will the assessments be done?

That hasn’t yet been defined. Ofqual, the exam regulator for England, has yet to publish its technical consultation covering what weight teachers are expected to give to the evidence or what proportion of the content students are expected to have covered to be awarded particular grades. Nor will teachers be given national guidelines for distribution of grades.

Will schools be able to use previous years’ exam results as a guide?

No. The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has ruled out referencing this year’s results against those of previous years, especially in the use of algorithms to determine grades.

Will teachers get any help in making decisions?

Yes, examination boards are to give training to teachers in the coming weeks and provide a list of evidence to be used, such as mock test results or class work, depending on the subject. And teachers will be able to use “common assessments” in the form of questions or tests supplied by the exam boards, although they won’t be compulsory. Heads of department and other senior leaders will also oversee awards.

Why is grade inflation likely?

Last year saw grades rise across GCSEs and A-levels after the cancellation of exams and the use of centre-assessed grades. This year is likely to see a repeat, because teachers will be grading students on different criteria, over a longer period of greater disruption, without the benefit of knowing how other schools and colleges will make their grading decisions. The government has said that no students should be worse off as a result of pandemic disruption, giving an incentive for more generous grading.

What guards against grade inflation are there?

The exam boards are to transmit guidance to schools on making assessments, which may counteract some inflation. The boards are also expected to randomly sample schools and colleges to check on their awarding process. Boards will also investigate schools and colleges with unusual grades awarded this year – and may ask schools to redo their assessments.

Will there be appeals?

Yes, all students are able to appeal over their grade, first through their centre and then to the exam boards, which will adjudicate on the evidence presented by schools and colleges. Full details of the appeals process remain to be seen, but appeal fees have been waived. Students are warned that their grades could go down after an appeal, although it appears unlikely.


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