Awarding grades and qualifications in 2021 - we want your views

Simon Lebus
25 January, 2021 : 10:39
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The last 10 months have been extremely challenging. Your children have suffered disruption to their studies and many have told us how anxious they feel. Others are disappointed that the exams they have worked hard for cannot take place. Schools and colleges have had to work in exceptional circumstances. Many of you have had to juggle work with home schooling. We know and appreciate that you and your children want clarity on the way ahead and you want it quickly.

On 15th January we published two consultations jointly with the Department for Education to get views on the way forward, now we know that exams will not take place as planned. The first covers how GCSE, AS and A level grades should be awarded in summer 2021. The second covers alternative arrangements for awarding vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs) and other general qualifications in 2021. We have already had many thousands of responses from students and parents: it is important that those who will be affected can have their say on the way forward.

At Ofqual, we have been planning for different scenarios for some time. We have learned valuable lessons from last summer and have a wealth of research and expertise to draw on.

The Secretary of State’s preference is that in Summer 2021 students taking GCSEs, AS and A levels regulated by Ofqual should be given grades based on teacher assessments. These could use a wide range of evidence, with exam boards providing support and guidance. The consultation explores the possibility of students taking some externally set tasks and the form these could take. Teachers would be helped to make fairer and more consistent assessments if their students undertook such tasks. We need to make sure that, as far as possible, a student in Bolton will get the same grade as a student at the same level in Brighton.

It is important to say here that grades must reflect what a student knows, understands and can do. They should enable a student to progress and stand them in good stead for the next part of their lives. We need to encourage students to carry on with their education for the remainder of the academic year as the knowledge, skills and understanding they can gain will be invaluable.

Grades must also be widely understood and respected, particularly by the people who use them. This includes higher and further education providers, and employers. What they cannot do is take account of what someone could have potentially achieved, had the pandemic not happened. Grades and assessments are performance measurements, after all.

Without formal exams, we won’t achieve the same degree of consistency as in normal years. There won’t be the same checks and balances in the system this year, and it’s likely to be the case that the distribution of grades overall this year will look different from 2020 and previous years.

For many vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs), assessment takes place throughout the year. Ofqual has already put in place special arrangements that allow awarding organisations to make changes to qualifications to take account of disruption caused by the pandemic. In some cases, these include remote assessment and invigilation, for example.

Ministers are clear that external exams for VTQs cannot take place as planned, and some learners may not be able to complete other forms of assessment due to the disruption caused by the pandemic. Most February and March written exams will not take place. So, we will also need to have some alternative arrangements in place.

Fairness will be key. There is an incredibly wide range of vocational and technical qualifications of different shapes and sizes so there will not be one single solution that will cover them all. The consultation looks at which qualifications will need alternative arrangements and how those arrangements should work.

For some qualifications, such as those that need a practical assessment to show occupational competency, assessments could continue, if public health guidance allows. Others, such as BTECs, are taken to help students progress in a similar way to GCSEs and A levels, but this doesn’t mean arrangements can be the same. For learners who cannot access assessments, alternative arrangements should be put in place to award results.

We would particularly like to hear from parents of students who are home educated, as we recognise they must be able to secure a grade. All students must also have a route to appeal their grade.

We, together with the Department for Education, will consider your responses to both consultations carefully. Students will carry these grades with them for life, so we must make sure they are as fair as they can be in these difficult circumstances. The consultations will run until 29th January. Do let us know what you think.

We expect to publish the next steps by the end of February.


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Simon Lebus
Simon Lebus became the interim Chief Regulator of Ofqual on 1st January 2021. He has a wealth of experience in education technology and curriculum delivery, most notably as Chief Executive of Cambridge Assessment from 2002 to 2018.

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