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What lessons need to be learnt post-exam season?

By Sarah Harris

The dust has settled on this summer’s GCSEs and A-levels and it’s clear some lessons were learnt after last year’s debacle. The controversial algorithm that unfairly downgraded thousands of students’ A-levels was ditched and the government finally put its faith in teachers – with mixed results.

Ministers failed to come up with a standardised method of assessment, so schools used different approaches, leaving some pupils sitting more tests than if GCSEs and A-levels had gone ahead. And results’ days produced inevitable, and significant, grade inflation – almost 45 per cent of A-level exams were graded A or A*, up from 38.5 per cent last year and 25.5 per cent in 2019, the last year public exams were held.

A similar pattern emerged at GCSEs, with the proportion of exams awarded the top grades – at least a 7 or an old A grade – surging to a record high (28.9 per cent), up from 26 per cent in 2020 and 21 per cent in 2019.

A spotlight was shone on the growing gap between state and private schools. While the 2020 algorithm disproportionately downgraded results from state school students, this summer a huge gulf emerged between the two sectors at both GCSE and A-level. Critics said it was unfair, claiming private schools provided better online lessons and resources during lockdown, while the Independent Schools Council (ISC) pointed out this year’s grading system had been a level playing field as evidence of the quality of students’ work had to be provided ‘irrespective of school type’.

What remains unarguable is that record results are storing up problems for the future, most notably for universities which face growing difficulty distinguishing between high achievers.

The government is currently considering adding a grade 10 to the 1-9 scale at GCSE and dismantling the A-E grading structure at A-levels and replacing it with a similar numerical system to help create greater differentiation at the top.

Professor Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council (ISC) and former headmaster of Harrow School, argues that grade inflation at the top end for A-levels is ‘too great to be sustainable’ as the most selective universities ‘are unable to distinguish between the quite good and the very good’.  He says ‘some level of compensation’ will be needed in exams next year due to students’ 2020-21 Covid learning loss. But he adds: ‘It will not be possible to revert to the 2019 grading standards (25.5 per cent A* and A at A-level) just like that – the jump back is too great.’

Instead, Professor Lenon, dean of the faculty of education at the University of Buckingham, says that grading standards next year ‘might look more like the 2020 level’ if GCSEs and A-level exams go ahead.

Ministers have announced a return to exams in 2022, with Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, speaking about the need for continued ‘adjustments and mitigations’. However, final plans are yet to be announced by the Department for Education and it is still not known how exams will be graded. Teenagers who received their GCSE results on August 12 will start their A-level courses next month with no idea about how they will be assessed.

This is one vital lesson the government still hasn’t learnt since last year – the need for students, schools and parents to receive timely information, and have certainty, around how GCSEs and A-levels are examined.

Mr Williamson and his department may have been cut some slack in the middle of the pandemic, but everyone’s patience is beginning to run out.

Sarah Harris is a freelance education journalist who regularly writes for the national press. She is a former education correspondent at the Daily Mail.


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