More generous grading will make A-levels fair next year, Williamson says

Government announces solutions to ensure A-level exams are “as fair as possible and manage the disruption caused by Covid-19”

Students in England sitting A-level exams next year will receive more generous grades and advance notice of exam topics, the education secretary has announced, to ensure assessments are “as fair as possible and manage the disruption caused by Covid-19”.

Gavin Williamson has previously announced that exams will be three weeks later than customary to give schools a chance to make up for teaching time lost during the pandemic. He described the announcement as a “package of exceptional measures”.

The mitigations include more generous grading for students in 2021, to level the playing field between them and students who received centre-assessed grades in 2020 during the university admission process.

Next year’s A-level students will receive advance notice of some exam topic areas and exam aides, like formula sheets. The government will lay on additional “contingency” exams to give students a chance to sit exams missed due to illness or self-isolation, and convene an expert group to monitor the impact of the pandemic on schools.

Other vocational qualifications, like BTECs, will also benefit from these changes.

Mr Williamson expressed his determination that public examinations go ahead next year, adding that they are “the best way of giving young people the opportunity to show what they can do”.

“But this isn’t business as usual,” he continued. “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.

“I am determined to support students, parents and teachers in these unprecedented times and hope measures like more generous grading and advance notice of some topic areas will give young people the clarity and confidence they need to achieve every success.”

We particularly welcome the intention to give parity within the measures to technical and vocational qualifications, which account for a significant proportion of the pathways supported by Alliance universities
– Vanessa Wilson, University Alliance 

University Alliance CEO Vanessa Wilson said the announcement “will bring additional reassurance to learners, schools and colleges and offers welcome clarity for universities to enable them to best plan to support students through the recruitment cycle”.

“The welcome contingency planning will help ensure learners are not unfairly disadvantaged if they face disruption, and Alliance universities will continue to be flexible and responsive to support learners to progress to further study and succeed once at university.

“We particularly welcome the intention to give parity within the measures to technical and vocational qualifications, which account for a significant proportion of the pathways supported by Alliance universities.”

The National Education Union has raised its concerns about how fair the new measures will be. Joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said the proposals were “insufficient” to meet the challenges.

Said Dr Bousted: “It means that the test of the government’s proposal must be whether it can compensate sufficiently for the inequality in access to in-school teaching and for the 700,000 pupils who have no access either to laptops or to the internet. On balance, we judge the government proposals to be insufficient to meet these challenges.”

Dr Bousted said the “slow decision-making process” is “better than nothing”, but “far less helpful than it could have been if it had been made sooner”.

She continued: “The decision to implement more generous grade boundaries in line with outcomes from 2020 is a welcome response which will go some way to reflect the disruption experienced by students this year.

“However, this is not a complete solution. Because grades are awarded by putting students in a rank order, those who have had less opportunity to prepare for the exams – for example because of repeated periods of isolation – will be placed further down that rank order.

“Adjusting grade boundaries is not a solution to the issue of differential access to learning: it does nothing for a student’s position in the national rank order.”


Read more: January term: staggered return and mass testing, announces DfE

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