In January, the Government announced that due to the ongoing education issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, students will again receive a form of teacher assessed grades this year, instead of going through the usual exam process for A-Levels, AS Levels and GCSEs.
We all witnessed the chaos that unfolded on A Level results day in August 2020 when it became apparent that, under the standardised grade system adopted by the Government (and based on Ofqual's inadequate algorithm) more than a third of pupils' grades had been downgraded. The Government later apologised, stepping away from the algorithm and confirming that students could instead receive and rely on their Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) prepared by their teachers. Whilst this decision came as a relief for many, the CAGs system was far from perfect and still resulted in pupils receiving lower grades than anticipated with few routes to appeal.
Whilst the news that CAGs will once again be used this year has been met with trepidation by pupils and schools alike, the Government seems keen to learn from last year's mistakes. A consultation was launched in January, setting out proposals for this year's system and seeking responses from stakeholders including pupils, parents and education institutions.
This year, schools have a far greater understanding of how the system is meant to work. They should at least have more time to put in place better processes, with appropriate checks and balances to ensure that the grading system is robust, transparent and, crucially, as fair as possible to all students.
One critical change to note this year is that it is proposed that teachers will not be required to rank their pupils and assign grades accordingly. This issue received considerable criticism last year, leaving schools in an invidious position of having to choose between students of equal aptitude. This change is to be welcomed.
In addition, rather than predicting the grade(s) that a student would most likely have received had the exams taken place, this year it is proposed that schools and colleges assess the standard at which students are currently performing. This recognises that all students have had a different educational experience due to the disruption caused by the pandemic. Again, this should allow for a more rounded and holistic approach to CAGs.
Pending further details emerging, we set out below some key considerations for schools to bear in mind, based on our experience of advising students, parents and institutions last year:
- A fair and transparent system: it is essential that schools implement a robust framework for grading which guarantees that checks and balances are in place to ensure that pupils' grades are assessed and reviewed fairly and transparently. It is expected that schools will put in place internal standardisation arrangements and procedures by which the heads of department and then the head of school sign off on the grades submitted by the teachers. It is essential that grades are reviewed by more than one teacher, that detailed records are kept of the rationale behind each grading decision and that any evidence that was taken into account is clearly recorded and kept for moderation and any appeals processes. Detailed guidance on how to assess students is expected to be provided to schools and colleges by exam boards before the Easter break. Multiple checks, including random sampling by exam boards, are expected to be conducted to ensure consistency and fairness of grades.
- Consider using easily moderated grading material: The DfE has now made clear that schools and colleges will be able to use optional questions provided by exam boards as part of their grading process. These materials are more easily moderated and could be used to inform their assessment of the grade deserved. Students are also familiar with the form that exam papers take.
- A flexible approach to grading: schools should recognise that no one child has experienced the same challenges during COVID-19 and ensure that sufficient consideration is given to holistic factors that might have affected a pupil's performance. Schools' frameworks for grading should outline how and where teachers should take into account pupils' extenuating circumstances. Particular issues to consider may include family bereavement, access to schooling and home setup (i.e. a quiet space and digital technology), medical factors, special educational needs and children who are part time carers.
- Guidance on the assessment process: this is critical for teachers and pupils alike. Exam boards will provide detailed guidance by the end of the Spring Term to help teachers objectively and consistently assess their pupils' performance. Best practice on avoiding bias and discrimination should also be explained to teachers. Similarly, at the earliest possible opportunity, pupils and parents should be provided with detailed guidance on how their grades will be assessed. The guidance must be as explicit as possible so as to allow for external moderation. Pupils should have the system explained to them and should be encouraged to engage with teachers prior to the assessment if they have any questions and/or their personal circumstances mean they may not be able to perform to the best of their ability in their assessed work. It should be clear to all students when and what work is being assessed.
- An accessible complaints process: the process by which pupils can challenge their grades should be clear from the outset. Our experience last year indicates that it may work well if a dedicated complaints/appeals officer is appointed by the school as a first point of contact. Pupils should be provided with guidance on bringing appeals well in advance of grades being released. The Government has announced that results day will be brought forward this year to the week of 9 August 2021 for both GCSE and A Level students to ensure that there is a longer period for appeals before universities and colleges go back in September.