Adaptations in 2022 summer exams need to ensure fairness for students

GCSE, AS and A-level exams in England next summer will be adapted to maximise fairness and help students reach their potential. 

Following a public consultation, the government and Ofqual have confirmed changes such as a choice of topics in some GCSE exams like English literature and history; advance information on the focus of exams to focus students’ revision in subjects, where there is not a choice of topics; and support materials like formulae sheets in maths.

The government said that these plans recognise the disruption caused to this year group’s education as a result of the pandemic, while balancing the need to return to exams as the fairest possible form of assessment.

With exams set to return, Ofqual has also set out its approach to grading, following the last two years, which saw an overall higher proportion of students receiving top grades, compared to pre-pandemic years.

Next year will be a transition year to reflect the recovery period, with grade boundaries to be set by exam boards reflecting a midway point between 2021 and 2019 – so that more students get higher grades in 2022 than before the pandemic. This approach will provide a safety net for this year’s students as well as a step back to normality, with results expected to return to the usual grade profile by 2023.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “We’ve put fairness at the heart of our approach and listened to pupils, teachers and parents. The measures we’re putting in place will help reduce the impact of the significant disruption this group of young people have had to face – allowing them to move onto the next stage of their lives.

“We are committed to rigorous standards being fairly applied, and exams are the fairest way to assess students, which is why they will take place next year.”

The consultation gathered more than 6,000 responses – with almost a quarter from students – and showed that more than 90 per cent of students and parents were in favour of giving advance information and around 80 per cent or more agreed with offering choices of topics.  

The government has stated that it is their firm intention that exams will take place next year, as the fairest way for students to show what they know and can do. But the government and Ofqual have also published proposals for Teacher Assessed Grades as a contingency measure if exams cannot go ahead, in the event that the course or impact of the pandemic changes.

Alongside this, the department has set out how these arrangements will apply to vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs).    

Ofqual chief regulator, Dr Jo Saxton, said: “The interests of learners are central to Ofqual’s mandate. For us, that means fairness. It means qualifications that stand the test of time, that employers, colleges and universities can trust.

“Our grading approach will recognise the disruption experienced by students taking exams in 2022. It will provide a safety net for those who might otherwise just miss out on a higher grade, while taking a step back to normal.

“Exams and other formal assessments are the best and fairest means of assessing students’ achievements. Choice in some subjects and advance information to support revision are intended to provide support for all as we emerge from the pandemic.

Advance information to help students focus their revision over the final months will be given for summer exams in early February and the timing will be kept under review subject to the course of the pandemic.

Results for exams next year will return to their normal format, with AS and A-levels being released on 18 August, and GCSEs on 25 August. VTQs used to progress in a similar way will be issued on or before the same days, and other VTQs results will continue to be issued throughout the year.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “We welcome the clarity for school leaders, teachers and students which comes from the decisions announced, although it would have been far preferable to have this before the start of the autumn term. These changes and adaptations should help to mitigate the impacts of the disruption that students have experienced.

“Although we welcome the change to the original proposals regarding timescales for sharing advance information, NAHT remains concerned at the planned date of 7 February 2022 as this will limit the desired impact. Many students preparing for exams in 2022 have endured significant disruption to teaching and learning over the last year. While we hope this academic year won’t see the same levels of disruption, learning time has already been lost.

“Whatever decision was made about the approach to grading in 2022, it would be open to criticism by some. The most important thing is that this decision has been made and everyone involved now knows what to expect. In the circumstances, this approach seems to be the one, which recognises we are in a period of recovery and that will ensure as much fairness as possible for students in 2022 whose learning has already been significantly affected by the pandemic.

“It is absolutely vital that data is only used as a starting point for grading decisions in 2022 and that the grade boundaries are set by senior examiners with the expertise to consider the standard of work produced by students in their exams.”

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