The Minister for School Standards (Nick Gibb)
With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement regarding the arrangements that have been put in place for awarding qualifications this year and next year.
Fairness to students was at the heart of the decision that a national exam series this summer could not go ahead, and fairness will remain our guiding principle in 2022. I believe and this Government believe that, all other things being equal, exams are the fairest way to assess students, but we cannot ignore the fact that covid-19 has caused disruption to education throughout the year as we took steps to reduce the spread of this virus, protect our NHS and save lives. It would simply have been unfair to ask students to sit exams as they would in a normal year, which is why in 2021 students will receive grades decided by the people who know them best: their teachers. To ensure fairness, that applies to GCSEs, AS-levels, A-levels and the vocational and technical qualifications that are most like those general qualifications and that lead to similar outcomes and destinations for students.
There was widespread support for our approach because it was the fairest approach. In January, we launched a joint consultation with Ofqual on the methodology for determining grades. It was the largest consultation in the Department’s history, with more than 100,000 responses from students, parents, teachers, school leaders and other stakeholders. We considered those responses very carefully.
Supported by teachers, parents and students, the approach taken means that every student has the best possible chance to show what they know and can do, enabling them to progress to the next stage of their education, training or employment. We took this course of action because teachers are the people who have the best understanding of their pupils’ performance. Teachers were given flexibility to choose from a range of evidence to underpin their assessments, including coursework, in-class tests set by the school or college, optional questions provided by exam boards, and mock exams.
Importantly, teachers assessed students only on what they had been taught, with students able to see the evidence used to assess them before their grades were submitted. Schools and colleges received guidance, support and training on how to do so fairly. Exam boards also issued grade descriptors pegged to performance standards from previous years to help teachers to make sure that their assessments were fair and consistent. Although teachers will determine grades, headteachers and principals have to sign off all grades, and there have been further quality assurance checks by exam boards to provide meaningful assurance of the system and root out malpractice.
I am pleased to update the House by saying that more than 99.9% of all teacher-assessed grades have now been submitted for this year. After submitting teacher-assessed grades, the exam boards asked all schools and colleges to submit evidence, a sample of which was checked to ensure that the process by which grades were awarded was correct and that they represented a reasonable exercise of academic judgment. More than 90% of that evidence was submitted within 48 hours.
I am pleased to report that the process of evidence checking is almost complete. As of 21 July, 99.5% of centres have submitted the evidence requested. Where the evidence has raised questions, centres have received a virtual visit and, on some occasions, have been asked to review grades. Once the quality assurance process is complete, the exam boards will go through the process of final checks ahead of the issuing of results to students in August.
Teacher-assessed grade results will be issued on 10 and 12 August, and we want all students to feel proud of their achievements this year. These results are meaningful qualifications, and they will help young people go on to the next stage of their lives. Although I hope all students receive the grades they need to progress, any students who feels disappointed when they open their results will have many options open to them. Students should talk to their school or college, university or prospective employer to discuss these options. They can also make use of the exam results helpline run by the National Careers Service.
It is only fair that, where students wish to improve their grades, they have the opportunity to sit an exam this autumn, as was the case last year. Exam boards will offer autumn exams in all GCSE and A-level subjects, and in maths and science AS-level subjects. These exams will take place over October, November and December.
We have also set out an appeals system for this year, should students believe a grade is wrong. Students can ask their school or college to check for errors first and, if necessary, submit a formal appeal to the exam board—as in any other year, grades can go up or down on appeal.
This approach, taken together, is the fairest for every student, and it retains faith in our grading system. This approach gives universities and employers the confidence they need that students have achieved grades that align with their ability and their work. Ultimately, the grades that students receive will do what they have always done: they will be young people’s passport to the next stage of their lives.
As we look forward to results day, I would like to thank all universities and colleges for their commitment to ensuring that students have access to the opportunities needed to succeed. I know that universities across the country stand ready to put students’ interests at the heart of decision making, and to ensure they have the time to carefully consider their options and make the best choice for the future.
As I have said, all other things being equal, exams are the fairest way of assessing students, and it is our firm intention that exams should go ahead in summer 2022. The Department and Ofqual launched two joint consultations on 12 July on proposed adaptations to exams and other assessments, to recognise the disruption to education that the 2022 cohort has faced as a result of the pandemic.
For GCSEs, AS-levels and A-levels, we are proposing a package of measures that includes four elements. In those GCSE subjects where it is possible to do so without undermining the assessment, we propose that exam boards should provide a choice of topics on which students will be assessed. In all other examined subjects at GCSE, AS-level and A-level, we propose that students and teachers should receive advance information about how the content of exams will be focused. We propose to reduce the burden of non-exam assessment in some subjects. Finally, we propose that students will be allowed to have access to support materials in the exam room in a small number of GCSE subjects.
For vocational and technical qualifications, the consultation sets out a range of proposed measures for those qualifications that are included in performance tables, including adaptations such as streamlining assessments, early banking of assessments and providing revision guidance. We are working with Ofqual and wider stakeholders on contingency plans to ensure that students are able to receive grades that are fair, even if further disruption occurs.
In putting together these proposals, we have been guided by the overarching principle of fairness. The proposed measures on which we are consulting are intended to help students progress to the next stage of their lives, and to succeed when they are there. We look forward to receiving views on the proposals and plan to announce final decisions on adaptations, as well as further details about contingency plans, in the autumn term.
I know that students who will take these exams next summer have faced a huge amount of disruption to their education this year. In addition to these measures, we are already investing huge sums to help them catch up so that they are ready to sit these exams. That is why schools have access to both a catch-up and a recovery premium to enable them to assess what will help their pupils to catch up on any lost education and to make provision available to ensure that they do so. It is why we are targeting support for 16 to 19-year-olds to those who need the most support through the 16 to 19 tuition fund, giving disadvantaged students access to one-to-one and small group tuition.
This year, the fairest possible approach to awarding qualifications has been to empower teachers to decide the grades that allow students to move on with their lives, whether that be in education, training or work. None of this could have been achieved without the hard work of our headteachers, teachers and wider education staff, to whom we all owe a great debt of gratitude. I also thank parents and students who have shown patience and flexibility over the past 18 months. I commend this statement to the House.