Generous grading and advance briefings on topics: Grade inflation ‘entrenched’ for 2021 exams

Camilla Turner
·4-min read
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson  - Neil Hall/Shutterstock 
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson - Neil Hall/Shutterstock

Exams next summer will be graded as generously as they were in 2020 as ministers are accused of “entrenching” grade inflation.

Pupils taking their GCSEs and A-levels will be awarded just as many top grades as last year to compensate for disruption to their schooling during the coronavirus pandemic, the Education Secretary announced.

Gavin Williamson also said that certain topics will be revealed to pupils in advance and that students will be allowed to refer to “exam aids” such as formula sheets while taking their papers.

A series of back-up exams will take place so that pupils get a “second chance” to sit a paper in case they have to self-isolate and miss the first one.

Only in “extreme cases” - where a pupil has a “legitimate reason” to miss all their exams as well as the back-up papers - will a school assessment be used as the basis for a grade.

Watch: Williamson says exams ‘best form of assessment for everyone’

On Wednesday night critics warned that ministers risk “embedding” the 2020 levels of grade inflation forever.

“This risks entrenching grade inflation,” one senior examiner said. “It would be difficult to say for 2022 that we will go back to 2019 grading standards.”

He said it was similar to the “big shift” in grades that occurred when the Certificate of Secondary Education and the General Certificate of Education were merged in the 1980s to produce the GCSE which “produced a shift in grading that was embedded in the system”.

The Government’s announcement of new measures for 2021 exams comes after the fiasco around grading of GCSE and A-level students last summer, when exams were cancelled amid the coronavirus pandemic and school closures.

Thousands of A-level students had their results downgraded from school estimates by an algorithm, before Ofqual announced a U-turn, allowing them to use teachers' original predictions instead.

In October, the Government announced that the 2021 exams would still go ahead in England, but that the majority of them would be delayed by three weeks to give pupils more time to catch up on learning.

Today, Mr Williamson will unveil a package of measures aimed at compensating for the amount of disruption students have faced over the past year.

But students who have been hit hardest by Covid will have to wait for exam clarity as the announcement did not include any measures to address the huge disparities in learning loss that children across the country have faced.

Instead, Mr Williamson said he will convene an expert group that will examine differential learning loss and “monitor” how the pandemic is affecting pupils in different regions.

The latest official figures, released earlier this week, revealed that more than a fifth (22 per cent) of secondary school pupils were absent from school last week for the second week running.

“Exams are the best way of giving young people the opportunity to show what they can do which is why it’s so important they take place next summer,” Mr Williamson said.

“But this isn’t business as usual. I know students are facing unprecedented disruption to their learning. That’s why exams will be different next year, taking exceptional steps to ensure they are as fair as possible.”

The Department for Education (DfE) also announced that full, graded Ofsted inspections will not resume until the summer term and exam results will not be included in school league tables this year.

Headteachers welcomed the changes saying they will make exams “as fair as they can be in the circumstances”.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "It is not perfect - nothing can be given the fact that learning has been so disrupted by coronavirus and that pupils have been affected to vastly different extents.

"But various options have been discussed exhaustively, and, frankly, schools and colleges just need a decision. The uncertainty has gone on for much too long and they need to be able to get on with the job of preparing their pupils for these important exams."

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Will the Government's proposals ensure exams in 2021 are fair? Or do they risk grade inflation? Tell us in the comments section below