Majority of schools will ‘prioritise exam-style papers when deciding grades’

Pupils taking exams Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

The majority of school leaders in England will place greater weight on exam-style papers when deciding pupils’ grades after this summer’s GCSE and A-level exams were cancelled, a survey suggests.

Only 6% of headteachers said students’ grades will be based solely on “non-exam evidence” this year, according to the snap poll by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).

More than half said they plan to give greater weighting to “exam-style papers” compared to other forms of assessments, while 7% will base assessments on papers “sat in exam-style conditions” only.

The findings came after the Department for Education (DfE) confirmed that teachers in England will decide GCSE and A-level grades after this summer’s exams were cancelled for the second year in a row.

This year, teachers will be able to draw on a range of evidence when determining pupils’ grades – including mock exams, coursework, and in-class assessments using questions provided by exam boards.

But these optional assessment questions from exam boards are not expected to be carried out in exam conditions, and schools have the flexibility to choose how long students have to complete the task and where it will be carried out.

The ASCL poll, of more than 500 secondary school and college leaders in England this week, suggests that 53% will base their teacher judgments on a combination of “exam-style papers” and non-exam evidence, but they say more emphasis will be placed on exam-style papers.

Seven per cent said grades will be based solely on exam-style papers sat in exam-style conditions – either in classrooms or exam halls.

Heads who have decided to base grades on exam-style papers alone said they felt it would ensure that all pupils are assessed on the same evidence.

They added that the disruption caused by lockdowns and self-isolation amid the pandemic made it difficult to identify other consistent quality evidence.

Meanwhile, school leaders who have chosen to use a combination of evidence – with greater weighting given to exam-style questions – felt the exam board papers provided reliable evidence based on pupils’ own work.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL, said: “We understand that the public may be confused by the fact that, on one hand, the Government cancelled public exams, and on the other hand, many schools will be using exam-style questions and papers to assess students.

“However, there are sound reasons for this approach and it is important to understand that schools will be formulating these assessments in line with their knowledge of the content their students have been able to cover during the pandemic.”

He added: “We should not be surprised about the variability in approaches given that there are very few parameters about how this should be done and a wide range of differing experiences over the past year.”

In February, the Education Policy Institute (Epi) think tank warned there was a “significant risk” that schools would take vastly different approaches to grading due to the class assessments being optional.

Last month, the Government’s decision to allow A-level and GCSE students to access assessment questions from exam boards in advance came under fire.

School leaders and education experts warned that making these materials publicly available to students ahead of tests could “embed disadvantage” and benefit more privileged students.

Mr Barton said: “A big challenge is obviously going to be ensuring that standards are consistent nationally across all these different approaches.

“Schools and colleges will be assessing evidence against common grade descriptors, and there will be internal and external quality assurance processes. Everything possible is being done to ensure that grades are fair and consistent.”

He called on the Government and regulators to do “everything possible” to support school and college staff with their assessments of pupils’ grades following the cancellation of exams.

An Ofqual spokesman said: “This year teachers and school leaders have discretion to decide how to arrive at their judgments of a student’s performance, based on what they have been taught.

“The arrangements in place give teachers flexibility on how and when to assess their students, and the materials they use to do so.

“The use of the additional assessment material provided by the exam boards is optional and part of a range of evidence which could be used by teachers to arrive at a grade.”