‘This year’s approach to exam marking is indefensible’

This year’s GCSE and A-level candidates have missed a big chunk of their education, and a sudden return to ‘normal’ marking is unjust, writes Tom Arrand

Tom Arrand is concerned about this year's exams

A student in Year 11 taking their GCSEs this summer, spent much of Years 8 and 9 learning at home from a laptop, tablet or smart phone, if they were fortunate enough to have access and to receive quality tuition.

The rich and diverse learning experiences that the general adult population remember about those formative years, were removed from them. School sport, music and drama were off limits. As were the often challenging but no less necessary social interactions and all of the learning benefits they bring. Up to a quarter of their secondary school education was significantly disrupted. Few deny the necessity but nor should we ignore the impact.

For students in Year 13 taking A-levels this year, the exact same can be said. They lost Years 10 and 11, the GCSE years. The process of learning and preparing for exams then executing those exams under pressure conditions, has not been experienced by this year’s cohort.

“Up to a quarter of their secondary school education was significantly disrupted.”

Recognising the impact that the pandemic had on teaching and learning, the decision was taken, last year, to adapt exam content and grade distribution to account for this. The net result, put simply, was that the national picture of grade distribution in 2022 was somewhere between the highs of the Centre Determined Grades of 2021 and the last “real” set of exam results in 2019. It was clear that the strategy was to ensure that in 2023, the national grade profile returned to 2019 levels.

Ofqual has been clear that there will be “an allowance for disruption so that overall results will be similar to those of 2019”. In effect, this means that senior examiners will make “allowances” when setting grade boundaries, to ensure that grades are broadly in line with the national profile of 2019.

This may seem fair, but it requires further scrutiny. Students aged 16 or 18 did not just miss the same, significant portion of their secondary education as the Class of ’22. They also (if taking A levels in England) have never sat a full public exam before. But worse than that, to suggest that they are in the same position as the 2019 generation wilfully ignores three equally significant things:

First of all, the loss of in-person learning time was at a formative stage in their educational careers. The content, skills and experiences they would have received without the disruption of the pandemic would, by design, have laid the foundations for later success. Backfilling this, while also attempting to deliver GCSE and A-level content and exam technique, is a monumental challenge for schools and to suggest that this summer’s candidates are not at a disadvantage because of that is to deny reality.

“Students taking A-levels in England have never sat a full public exam before.”

Secondly, the disruption has not stopped. Absences have almost doubled since pre-pandemic levels and in December of last year, when parents were concerned about Strep A and Scarlet Fever outbreaks, the rates of unauthorised absences rose by 70 per cent. The rate of absences amongst school staff is equally bleak.

In a recent Tes survey, over 70 per cent of respondents said that the rate of absence in their schools was as bad or worse than during the pandemic. In fact, just 2 per cent of respondents suggested that staff absence has not been a problem for their school. This has put unsustainable pressure on schools where the impact is ultimately felt in the classroom. Merged classes, the overuse of cover supervisors and the need to deploy non-specialists are just some of the means that schools have had to deploy to get through the problem.

“The grade boundaries must be kept in line with last year’s and reduced carefully…over the years if necessary.”

A third impact which many may not have considered is that students who gained A-level grades in 2021 (Centre Assessed) or 2022 (adapted content and grade boundaries) are still in the mix for university places in 2023, either because they have deferred their applications post results or have reapplied through this year’s UCAS process. How can students whose results were gained through completely different processes or against different criteria be considered to be on the same playing field? If it seems absurd, it’s because it is.

There has been no adapted content for this year’s cohort, as there was last year. And it is, quite clearly, too late to reconsider that. The grade boundaries, therefore, must be kept in line with last year’s and reduced carefully, slowly and strategically over the years if necessary.

There is so much more to unpack when it comes to having a long-term solution to the impact of the pandemic on learning but that is not the purpose of this piece. Put simply, the Class of ’23 will achieve results which are out of sync with their immediate predecessors because the impact on them has been just as great and they are being assessed on more content, with stricter grade boundaries.

This is indefensible and immediate action must be taken to address it.