Use 2020 as baseline for future exam results, argues former DfE adviser

Policy expert says pegging results to last year is fairest and least disruptive way to rebalance grades

Future exam results in England should be permanently pegged to those awarded in 2020 to avoid pupils being hit by a fall in grades awarded, argues a former senior government adviser, as 16-year-olds across the country await their GCSE results.

Sam Freedman, a policy expert and former adviser in the Department for Education, said using the results awarded in 2020 as the new baseline for A-levels and GCSEs would be the fairest way to rebalance grades after two years of systematic acceleration.

This week’s A-level results, awarded by teacher assessment after formal exams were cancelled in January, revealed a spike in higher grades awarded across the board. At independent schools 70% of entries gained As and A*s, setting off calls for a new grading system to tackle perceptions of inflation.

The proposals being mooted include scrapping letter grades at A-levels and replacing them with the 1-9 numerical system that has been used in GCSEs since 2017.

But Freedman, who advised ministers during the last major reforms, said it was too late to make changes for those taking exams next year, and cautioned against efforts to abruptly return to the level of grades last seen in 2019.

“You can’t change the grading system halfway through a course – you can change the balance of grades, but you can’t completely rip it up. For GCSE regrading we had a three or four-year run-in to the change of system,” Freedman said.

“But changing the system doesn’t actually solve the problem, because you still have to convert the numbers to the old grades so that people know what they mean.

“It would signal a break, but you would still end up in the position where you either have to give as many top grades as the previous year or give significantly fewer. It doesn’t help you with the problem of how many people get the best grades.”

Headteachers and school leaders agreed that a sudden shift back to the previous system was unviable. Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, called for the government to undertake “meaningful consultation to ensure the fairest system for students”.

In a report for the Institute for Government, Freedman looked at options including a switch back to 2019 grades, but decided that using the grades awarded by assessment in 2020 as a new baseline was the fairest and least disruptive option.

“Starting from 2020 would bake in a lot of the grade inflation, and that can cause other problems. The other option is that we do a gradual step-down over several years, which seems very messy but is something that the government is considering,” Freedman said.

An abrupt return to the 2019 system – when 25% of entries were awarded A or above, compared with 45% this summer – would be “politically impossible” for ministers, he argues.

“Whatever year you do it, it’s very unfair on that group. And you are going to have headlines saying A-level results drop 50% in a year. If I was writing a note to the minister, that is what I would call brave. If there was a 50% drop, you can imagine the children crying on television,” Freedman said.

“There’s no good answer. I decided rebasing outcome was best because you do it once, after that it’s consistent and you just have to accept that pre- and post-pandemic systems were different.”

Approximately 700,000 year 11 pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will receive their results on Thursday, also awarded by teacher assessment, when GCSEs are published.

But the rise in this year’s GCSE grades is not expected to be as spectacular as that seen in A-levels.

The proportion of entries by 16-year-olds gaining the highest 7-9 grades rose from 21.9% to 27.6% in England last year, and those awarded grade 9 alone rose from 4.7% to 6.6%. In comparison, 19% of A-level entries were awarded A* this year.

Analysis by the FFT Datalab researchers, using teacher assessed grades submitted to its benchmarking service, suggests that results will be “broadly similar to 2020 in most subjects” at grade 4 and above, with a 2% increase in 7-9 grades.

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Richard Adams Education editor

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