New GCSE and A-level exam grading system is 'good compromise', Boris Johnson insists

  • Video report from ITV News UK Editor Paul Brand

Boris Johnson has said the new system set up to replace A-level and GCSE exams is a "good compromise", in the face of complaints from parents that it could see some pupils graded unfairly.

This year's exams, which have been cancelled due to the disruption to education caused by the coronavirus crisis, will be replaced by teacher-assessed grades.

The grades will be given earlier in August to give students more time to appeal, the education secretary announced.

The prime minister said the system "will be fair, I think it will be durable and it's the right way forward".

He added: "The best place for kids is in schools and they have got absolutely no doubt about it, the pupils themselves."

During a visit to Accrington Academy in Lancashire the prime minister asked a group of students if they were "looking forward to doing exams", despite this year's papers being cancelled for the majority of children.

Most of the pupils in the room laughed, presumable aware that they were unlikely to be sitting exams this year.

In England, all pupils will be allowed to appeal their grades at no extra cost. They will also be given the chance to sit exams in the autumn if they are still unhappy with their results.

It follows confirmation from Education Secretary Gavin Williamson on Thursday that algorithms will not be used to standardise teachers’ estimated grades this year.

Exam boards will provide teachers with optional assessment questions for students to answer to help schools decide what grades to award, after this summer’s exams were cancelled due to the pandemic.

But these assessments are not expected to be carried out in exam conditions and teachers will have the flexibility to choose how long students have to complete the task, and where it will be carried out.

The final decision comes after the Association of School and College Leaders said students should not be expected to sit compulsory “mini-exams” to help teachers with their grading judgments amid Covid-19 disruption.

Education Secretary Williamson insisted to MPs when updating the Commons, that the new system offers a "fair route" to the next stage of education for students.

He acknowledged the coronavirus pandemic had caused children the "worst disruption to education since the Second World War", but said the government's approach has "been to protect the progress of pupils and students".

"Ultimately, this summer's assessments will ensure fair routes to the next stages of education or the start of their career. That is our overall aim."

He had previously suggested students could be asked to sit externally-set papers to help teachers with grading.

The Department for Education and England’s exams regulator Ofqual have also confirmed that teachers will be able to draw on a range of evidence when determining grades – including mock exams, coursework, or other work completed as part of a pupil’s course, such as essays or in-class tests.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Pupils will only be assessed on what they have been taught after months of school and college closures.

Schools and colleges will submit their grades to exam boards by June 18 to maximise teaching time.

Students will receive grades in early August, once quality assurance checks have been completed by the exam boards.

Many parents are concerned that some teachers could be biased when giving out grades, and teachers' pets could be awarded top scores while those in the bad books could be graded unfairly.

School minister Nick Gibb told ITV News various "quality assurance" checks are in place to ensure grades are fair and teachers will be given unconscious bias training

He added that "teachers are professionals" and the government trusts their judgement. He also pointed to a revised appeals process.

Normally, students receive their results in mid to late August, but A-level students will receive their results on August 10 and GCSE pupils will receive theirs two days later on August 12.

It is hoped that bringing results day forward will ensure pupils have enough time to log appeals so A-level students do not miss out on their preferred university places for the autumn.

Meanwhile, Education minister Nick Gibb said the reported falling-out with Sir Jon Coles, former director-general at the Department for Education who is said to have resigned from his role on the Ofqual committee advising on exams, was to do with introduction of exams “by the backdoor”. Sir Jon is reported to have said the government’s teacher-assessment plans for grades would “risk an outcome… much worse than last year”. Schools minister Mr Gibb told Sky News: “He thought that the exams material that we’re making available to teachers, the question banks that they can use as part of the range of evidence they will need to supply to exam boards about how they’ve devised the grades, he wanted that to be compulsory, mandatory.

“We asked that question in the consultation… and the consultation was very clear they should be an option and not mandatory. “We didn’t want those materials to be regarded as a mini-exam because we have cancelled exams this year because they were felt to be unfair, given the disruption.” Mr Gibb, speaking to LBC, added: “We didn’t want there to be an exam by the backdoor if it was mandatory – that was the fear.”

The grading of students became a fiasco last summer when exams were cancelled amid school closures.

Thousands of A-level students had their results downgraded from school estimates by a controversial algorithm, before Ofqual announced a U-turn which allowed them to use teachers’ predictions.

Last year, students protested against the government’s handling of the pandemic. Credit: Victoria Jones/PA

But this year, the regulator will not use an algorithm to standardise teachers’ estimated grades if they appear more generous than they should be.

The DfE said schools and colleges will conduct multiple checks – such as on the consistency of judgments across teachers and that the correct processes are followed – to ensure as much fairness as possible.

Exam boards will also conduct their own checks, through a combination of random sampling and more targeted scrutiny.

It comes after a joint consultation on exams received more than 100,000 responses – with more than half coming from students themselves.

Mr Williamson said: “Young people have shown incredible resilience over the last year, continuing with their learning amidst unprecedented challenges while the country battles with this pandemic. Those efforts deserve to be fairly rewarded.

“That’s why we are providing the fairest possible system for those pupils, asking those who know them best – their teachers – to determine their grades, with our sole aim to make sure all young people can progress to the next stage of their education or career.”

Students studying vocational and technical qualifications, which are often taught alongside GCSEs and A-levels, will also receive grades assessed by teachers rather than sitting exams.

Ofqual’s interim chief regulator Simon Lebus said: “The aim is to make it no harder overall for this year’s students to receive a particular grade than students in other years.”

Exam boards will provide guidance to teachers on how to make judgments before the Easter holidays.

Leora Cruddas, chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts, said: “There is a reasonable consensus that teacher judgment will need to be both supported, scaffolded and quality assured.

“This is because although the pandemic has had a damaging impact, we still want assessment outcomes this year to reflect something objective.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the school leaders’ union NAHT, said the plans “appear to chart a path which avoids the awful chaos of last year”.

He said: “This set of decisions is, however, only the starting point. It is now down to the awarding bodies to provide the detail which schools and colleges need to implement the process.

“Although earlier results for students seeking to start university could be beneficial, cramming GCSE results into the same week will place unnecessary pressure on to the system.”

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the final decisions are “better” than the original proposals, adding it is “likely the least worst option available”.

But she added: “However, there are still question marks over how it is expected that the extra work necessary to facilitate grading will be dealt with.

“Substantial time will need to be set aside for the initial assessments and gradings and then the internal school moderation processes. It may well be that extra staff need to be employed to release teachers for this important work.”

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