This report examines the fairness, transparency and accessibility of this year’s exam arrangements. As we took evidence and asked questions, these were the three guiding principles against which we scrutinised Ofqual’s and the Department’s decisions. Our report considers arrangements for GCSEs and A levels, as well as vocational and technical qualifications.
Pupils up and down the country have worked hard to prepare for their exams, and we understand their immense disappointment at the news that exams would be cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Department and Ofqual acted swiftly to devise alternative arrangements so that pupils can be awarded grades and move on to the next step of their lives. Ofqual in particular should be commended for stepping up to the immense challenge of devising these exceptional arrangements.
Pupils will carry these qualifications with them for their entire lives. Their calculated grades must be accurate. But we have concerns that the system described by Ofqual as the “fairest possible in the circumstances” could be unfair for groups including disadvantaged pupils, BAME pupils, children looked after, and pupils with SEND.
We commend teachers for their hard work and professionalism in making difficult judgements about grades and ranking, and we note that they are working within the system designed by Ofqual. Exam boards will standardise grades using a model devised by Ofqual. Standardisation is a process applied to the calculated grades submitted by schools and colleges to ensure consistency. Standardisation draws on multiple evidence sources to determine whether calculated grades are more severe or generous than expected. As a result of standardisation, calculated grades may be adjusted, so that the grades pupils ultimately receive may be different to the centre-assessed grades submitted by schools and colleges.
Given the potential risks of bias, inaccuracy and grade inflation, it is clear that standardisation will play a crucial role in ensuring fairness. We call on Ofqual to make a transparency guarantee—a commitment to publishing details of its standardisation model immediately. Ofqual should not be afraid of scrutiny or open debate over whether its model offers the fairest outcome for every pupil and provider.
It is right that pupils should be able to appeal their grade if they believe bias or discrimination has occurred, but Ofqual has not given enough thought on how to make this route accessible to all pupils. Without support, proving bias or discrimination would be an almost impossible threshold for any pupil to evidence. Disadvantaged pupils, and those without family resources or wider support, risk being shut out of this route. Ofqual must urgently publish the evidence thresholds for proving bias and discrimination, clearly setting out what evidence will be required.
At our evidence session with Ofqual, we called for it to provide an advice and appeals helpline for pupils, and we welcome its commitment to do so. This must be free, and staffed by professionals trained to provide gold-standard, step-by-step assistance and advice to pupils about their options.
We strongly welcome the Government’s announcement on funding catch-up tuition for the most disadvantaged pupils. However, the pandemic’s impact on learning loss does not stop when pupils turn 16. We call on the Government to extend this to disadvantaged post-16 pupils, to ensure this group is not left behind as they prepare for their exams. We call on the Department to set out expectations for provision of teaching support for pupils opting for an autumn exam.
Looking ahead to summer 2021, we remain mindful of the immense catch-up programme that will be needed to tackle learning loss. We do not support modifications to these exams, as we believe the 2021 cohort of exam-takers would be disadvantaged by a perception that their exams were not as rigorous as those taken by other cohorts. Instead, a short delay—weeks, not months—is the preferable option.
We set out our main recommendations for a fairer, more transparent, and more accessible system below:
Ofqual must identify whether there is evidence that groups such as BAME pupils, pupils with SEND, children looked after, and FSM eligible pupils have been systematically disadvantaged by calculated grades. If this is the case, Ofqual’s standardisation model must adjust the grades of the pupils affected upwards.
The Government must extend catch-up funding to include disadvantaged post-16 pupils to ensure this is not a lost generation. This should be done by doubling the disadvantage element in the 16–19 funding formula for pupils in Year 12, for at least the next year.
Ofqual’s evaluation must include comprehensive data on attainment, by characteristics including gender, ethnicity, SEND, children looked after, and FSM eligibility, providing full transparency on whether there are statistically significant differences between attainment this year compared with previous years.
Ofqual must be completely transparent about its standardisation model and publish the model immediately to allow time for scrutiny.
Ofqual must collect and publish anonymised data at the conclusion of the appeals process on where it received appeals from, including, as a minimum, type of school attended, region, gender, ethnicity, SEND status, children looked after (including children supported by virtual schools), and FSM eligibility.
Ofqual must urgently publish the evidence thresholds for proving bias or discrimination, clearly setting out what evidence will be required, including example case studies. This must be communicated to parents and pupils in advance of results day.
Ofqual must ensure gold-standard advice and support is easily accessible for all pupils unhappy with their grades. Both the helplines provided by Ofqual and the National Careers Service must be freephone lines. These must both be staffed by dedicated professionals with the training to provide sound and impartial step-by-step advice and support on options and appeals.
Published: 11 July 2020