Ofqual plans ‘glide path’ back to pre-Covid exam grading in England

Government aims to avoid sudden drop in GCSE and A-level grades after sharp rises in 2020 and 2021

Pupils in England could be put on a “glide path” back to pre-pandemic exam grading over the next two years, as the government prepares to unveil plans to avoid a sudden drop in national A-level and GCSE results awarded from 2022 onwards.

Ofqual, the exam regulator for England, is said to be aiming for a “soft landing” in the overall distribution of grades that pupils receive in returning to the system last used in 2019, before the grade acceleration seen in 2020 and 2021 when formal exams were replaced by teacher assessment.

A switch to grading A-levels using the 9-1 numerical system is also under serious consideration, it is understood. That would bring A-levels into line with GCSE grading in England and help to recalibrate the distribution of higher grades towards those awarded before the pandemic. But such a switch is unlikely to be implemented before 2024.

Ofqual and the Department for Education are expected to publish further details later this month about how next summer’s exam assessments will be handled, based on responses to the joint consultation launched in June. According to the consultation, it is likely that students in 2022 will be given a wider choice of topics for some GCSE subjects and advance information about the focus of exams in others including A-levels, in an effort to counteract the disruption to learning caused by the pandemic.

Policymakers and ministers have been grappling with the problem of how to deflate the higher proportion of grades awarded in 2020 and 2021, especially in A-levels, where the number of top A* and A grades has risen sharply. This summer, 44% of A-level entries were awarded A or A* through teacher assessment, compared with 25% of entries through exams in 2019.

The acceleration in top grades was less acute in GCSEs, where the proportion of entries awarded grades 7-9 – equivalent to A-A* – rose from 22% in 2019 to 30% this year.

The government wants to see a return to the system used in 2019 and before, known as comparable outcomes, which anchors the national grade distribution for GCSEs and A-levels to the academic track record of the year group taking exams. But that will be difficult to achieve immediately, because the two-year absence of exams means other measures of attainment would need to be used.

It has caused prolonged debate within Whitehall and Ofqual over how to best achieve a return to pre-pandemic grading. Sam Freedman, a former Department for Education policy adviser, wrote an influential report for the Institute for Government that recommended anchoring future grades to those awarded in 2020, to avoid harsh treatment of students taking exams in 2022.

But such a move has been rejected within government as meaning a shift to permanently higher grades overall, and downgrading the results of those who got their results in 2019 and earlier.

Another option, of a “cliff edge” abrupt return to pre-pandemic grading, would be likely to cause outrage among parents at the injustice for students in 2022 who have also suffered from missed learning opportunities, being out of the classroom for an average of 47 days last year.

Instead a “glide path” downwards, making adjustments in 2022 and 2023, was seen as more pragmatic and acceptable, according to policymakers who spoke to the Guardian.

Labour has criticised the government for not publishing its full policies for the start of the new school year, saying it was vital that headteachers and students knew what they were facing in a little over seven months’ time.

Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, supports pegging the 2022 grade distribution to the 2020 awards, “in recognition that this year’s students will likely be competing with the 2020-21 cohorts for education, employment or training opportunities”.

The DfE said: “In deciding on an approach to grading next year we will be asking Ofqual to be as fair as possible to students taking qualifications next summer and to those who took them in previous years or will take them in the future.”

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Richard Adams Education editor

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