Getting the grades they’ve earned: COVID-19: the cancellation of exams and ‘calculated’ grades: Response to the Committee’s First Report

Second Special Report

On 11 July 2020 the Education Committee published its First Report of Session 2019–21, Getting the grades they’ve earned: Covid-19: the cancellation of exams and ‘calculated’ grades (HC 617). Ofqual’s response was received on 15 September 2020. The Government’s response was received on 18 September 2020. Both responses are appended to this report.

In both responses, the Committee’s recommendations are shown in bold type, and the Government’s responses are shown in plain type.

Appendix: Government Response


On 11 July 2020, the Education Select Committee published the first report of its inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 on education and children’s services which focused on the cancellation of the 2020 summer exams and subsequent issuing of grades to students. The government welcomes the report and the Committee’s ongoing work to understand the impact of Covid-19 on education.

The government also welcomes the Committee’s recognition in the report of the challenges involved in both awarding grades in summer 2020 and running exam series in autumn 2020 and summer 2021. The government wants to work collaboratively with the Committee to learn lessons from the 2020 summer exams process as we move towards the 2021 summer exam series. We have apologised for what happened this summer, the distress it caused for many and that those who have borne the brunt of it have been the students themselves.

As the Committee will be aware, the government and the independent exams regulator, Ofqual, announced on 17 August that following the concerns that had arisen after the issuing of AS and A level results on 13 August, there would no longer be a standardisation process for AS, A levels and GCSEs (or extended project and AEA qualifications). Instead, centre assessment grades for AS, A levels and GCSEs in summer 2020 would be awarded (unless this grade was lower than a student’s calculated grade, in which case the calculated grade would stand).

The decision to revert to centre assessment grades means that several of the recommendations set out in the Committee’s July report regarding calculated grades address a system which no longer applies in the same way as when the report was published. Therefore, whilst the government notes the Committee’s conclusions and the recommendations regarding awarding grades in summer 2020, this response sets out the government’s response only to the other, still relevant, recommendations in the Committee’s report.

This response also focuses only on the recommendations where the department holds responsibility. The government understands that Ofqual has already replied to the Committee separately addressing the recommendations in the report that, as the independent exams regulator, they are responsible for.

Responses to individual recommendations

Recommendations 12–13

12. Both Ofqual and the National Careers Service will be offering helplines to provide support and advice on and after results day. Two helplines must not mean a two-tier system. It is imperative that whichever number pupils ring, they will be provided with the same gold-standard, professional advice. (Paragraph 44)

13. Ofqual must ensure 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 appeals. (Paragraph 45)

We, and Ofqual, recognise the importance of students having clear and accessible information, as well as someone they can speak to if they are unhappy with or have questions about their results.

The department’s Exam Results Helpline is delivered by the National Careers Service but goes much wider than just careers advice. Callers to the helpline have direct access to experienced careers advisers who can advise on the different options available to them including T levels, A levels, GCSEs, BTECs, apprenticeships and other vocational options. Support is also available on topics such as clearing, university, gap years and the autumn exam series. In the very difficult circumstances of this summer, the helpline has been extended beyond its usual cut off point and will now be available until 18 September to provide additional support to students and their parents as they receive their results and consider their next steps.

Ofqual has also been running a helpline for students, plus a dedicated helpline for MPs raising issues on behalf of their constituents.

Staff on both helplines received full training and both helplines were ready to receive larger than normal volumes of calls around results days, having significantly increased capacity to do so. The Exam Results Helpline is a freephone number and the Ofqual helpline is charged at standard network rate.

Recommendations 15–16

15. Fairness and accessibility must be the guiding principles of an autumn exam series. Having directed Ofqual to provide pupils with “an opportunity to sit an exam at the earliest reasonable opportunity”, the Department must not now wash its hands of further responsibility. (Paragraph 49)

16. The Department must provide guidance for schools and colleges, outlining minimum requirements for provision of teaching support for pupils opting for an autumn exam. The Department must support schools and colleges to manage the logistics of this series, providing concrete solutions on how the burden of an additional series can be minimised. (Paragraph 50)

In most cases, students receiving grades in the summer will be able to use them to move onto their next step of education or employment. However, we appreciate that there are some individuals (e.g. private candidates) that were not able to receive grades this summer which is one of the reasons we are holding an autumn exam series in all subjects.

We are encouraging schools and colleges to support students taking autumn exams if they have capacity, and anecdotally we know that many are providing high levels of support such as online support (both academic and pastoral); access to libraries; laptops and financial support for transport.

In addition, logistical support for the autumn series exams is available. The department has launched an Exam Support Service which is open to all types of schools and colleges to help manage the logistics of this additional autumn series. The department has published guidance for exam centres regarding how to use the Exam Support Service.

Some schools and colleges may not be able to run exams on their own sites without disruption to study. If schools and colleges require additional space to run autumn exams, they will be able to book venues through the government’s specialist venue supplier or make their own arrangements and claim back. The supplier has been available for bookings from the beginning of the autumn term, with sites being fully funded.

Schools and colleges will also be offered the opportunity to book Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checked invigilators through an approved supplier to support the delivery of autumn exams. Most schools and colleges will have made savings on invigilation costs, following the cancellation of summer exams. They will, however, be able to claim back the deficit if their autumn invigilator costs exceed invigilator savings they have made in the summer.

The government is clear that students and their families should not have to meet the cost of fees for entry into the autumn series. Schools and colleges should not face additional costs for fees, over and above what they would have paid had summer exams gone ahead. The Exam Support Service will provide funding to ensure that schools and colleges do not incur a net loss, taking their autumn fees and any rebates they receive in respect of summer exams together. Schools and colleges will be able to make claims for any deficit between the cost of their autumn fees and summer fee rebates later in the autumn term.

Recommendations 19–20

19. We believe that modifications to assessments will lead to erosion of standards, and that the 2021 cohort of exam-takers could be disadvantaged by a perception that their exams were not as rigorous as those taken by other cohorts. (Paragraph 55)

20. We support a short delay for exams in summer 2021 as preferable to modifications to exam content. Any delay must be a matter of weeks, not months. Ofqual must publish details of the 2021 exam series as soon as possible, and before the end of the summer term. (Paragraph 56)

We recognise that students due to sit exams and assessments in 2021 will have experienced disruption to their education due to the coronavirus outbreak. As such, we have been working closely with Ofqual, the exam boards and groups representing teachers, schools and colleges to consider our approach to exams and other assessments next year.

From 2 July to 16 July, Ofqual consulted on a range of possible adaptations to GCSE, AS and A level exams and assessments in 2021 on a subject-by-subject basis, with the overriding aim of ensuring that exams and assessments are as fair as possible. The consultation proposed, in particular, a range of ways to free up additional time for teaching (including the possibility of a slight delay to the exams timetable in 2021) and to accommodate any public health requirements next year. The consultation received almost 29,000 responses.

On 3 August, Ofqual published a summary of the responses and the decisions taken in light of the responses. In line with the Secretary of State’s letter to Ofqual of 18 June, the subject content that forms the foundation of GCSEs, AS and A level qualifications will not be changed. However, in certain subjects with a high volume of content, centres will have a choice of topics on which their students will be required to answer questions in their exams in 2021—releasing teaching time and reducing the pressure on students and their schools and colleges.

We believe that, overall, the changes confirmed by Ofqual will help to ensure that those young people taking exams in 2021 have the same opportunities to progress as the students before them. We will continue to discuss our approach with school and college stakeholders, Ofqual and the exam boards, to ensure that exams in 2021 are fair.

With regard to the timing of exams next year, the Secretary of State asked Ofqual in the letter of 18 June to consider a short delay to the GCSE, A and AS level exam timetable in 2021, to free up additional teaching time. We are continuing to work with Ofqual, the exam boards, regulators in the devolved administrations, and groups representing schools, colleges and higher education to consider the best approach, and decisions will be confirmed as soon as possible.

Recommendations 21–23

21. The pandemic’s impact on learning loss does not stop when pupils turn 16. Post-16 learners, whether they are resitting key English and Maths GCSEs, or preparing to sit final exams before entering higher education or the workplace, deserve proper catch-up support. (Paragraph 58)

22. 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. (Paragraph 59)

23. Any post-16 pupils attending Alternative Provision and Pupil Referral Units, and those training for basic skills, must also be eligible for catch-up funding. (Paragraph 60)

The Government has made up to £96 million available for the 2020/21 academic year to support 16–19 year old students via the 16 to 19 Tuition Fund. Funding is ring fenced for schools, colleges and all other 16 to 19 providers to mitigate the disruption to education arising from Covid-19. The funding is being provided to support small group tuition for 16 to 19 students in English, maths, and other courses where education has been disrupted.

All 16–19 providers in receipt of ESFA funding (either directly or via a local authority) are eligible to receive an allocation. All 16–19 students (except those in special schools and alternative provision) in schools, academies, special post-16 institutions and independent training providers are in scope, where they meet the fund criteria. We are providing all special and alternative provision schools with catch-up premium funding in line with the specialist setting rates for schools, in line with our usual approach to funding these schools.

Published: 24 September 2020