Schools advised to run termly assessments under back-up plan for cancelled exams

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A “back-up plan” for next summer’s GCSE and A-levels has been unveiled in case further Covid-19 variants emerge and exams have to be cancelled.

The Government and Ofqual have published joint proposals for using teacher-assessed grades again in summer 2022 if exams cannot go ahead.

Schools are being advised to plan termly assessments to ensure evidence is collected which could be used to determine their students’ grades if needed.

But the Department for Education (DfE) has said it is “firmly committed” to GCSE and A-level pupils sitting exams with adaptations next summer.

It comes after the proportion of GCSE and A-level entries awarded the top grades surged to a record high this year after results were determined by teachers amid cancelled exams due to Covid-19.

It adds that schools would be asked to plan assessment opportunities for teacher-assessed grades (TAGs) “in advance” so evidence is secured early, for example before Christmas, to “protect against further disruption”.

The DfE and Ofqual launched a consultation on Thursday on contingency proposals in the event that exams are cancelled for a third year in a row.

The proposed guidance warns that teachers will want to “guard against the risk of over-assessment” when collecting evidence that could be used.

It says: “A sensible pattern could be to plan to assess students once in each of the second half of the autumn term, the spring term, and the first half of the summer term.”

It adds that students should only be assessed on content they have already been taught, and they should be told before taking the assessment that their performance will be used to inform their TAGs if exams are cancelled.

Ian Bauckham, interim chair of Ofqual, said proposals for a “back-up plan” for exams have been published in case further Covid-19 variants emerge.

He told the BBC’s Today programme: “It will enable us to go back to teacher-assessed grades should we need to. We think that’s unlikely, we think we’re going to run examinations this year and are very much aiming for that, but there is a back-up plan in place, just in case.”

But Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said the measures announced by the DfE and Ofqual were “insufficient”.

He said: “The arrangements for teacher assessed grades (TAGs) used last summer created a nightmare of substantial unnecessary workload burdens for teachers and also resulted in students spending too much of their time undertaking assessments rather than focussing on learning.

“Many teachers reading the consultation document will be concerned that there is nothing proposed to ensure that the pressures of TAG-related assessment and moderation will not be repeated.”

Dr Roach added: “The NASUWT will be consulting with our members across the country; but we are clear that the measures announced today are insufficient and fail to demonstrate that ministers have learned any lessons from the experience of the last year.”

Pupils in England will be offered a choice of topics in some GCSE exams, such as English literature, history, ancient history and geography, as well as exam aids, next summer to make up for Covid-19 disruption.

For subjects where a choice of topics are not provided, advance notice on the focus of exam content will be given in February to help students with revision.

Grade boundaries for 2022 will be set reflecting a “midway point” between 2019 and 2021 results, Ofqual has confirmed.

The change means the overall results next summer will be higher than before the pandemic, but not as high as in 2020 and 2021.

In 2023, the grading standards are expected to return to pre-pandemic levels.

This year, 44.8% of UK A-level entries were awarded an A or A* grade, compared with 25.5% of entries which achieved the top grades in 2019, when exams were last run before the pandemic.

But Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), said he was “worried about fairness” between different cohorts of students.

He told the PA news agency: “Is it fair on the younger brother or sister of those who have got higher grades but who are of similar ability? Will it be fair in the jobs market later on, given that employers look so closely at A-level grades?

“We need the system to be recalibrated in such a way that straight comparisons are harder to make.

“That’s why I would consider moving to a different grading system, such as numbers – as has already happened at GCSE.”

Ofqual has said there will be no A-level grading scale changes in 2023 despite reports in August that ministers were thought to be considering replacing the traditional A to E grades with a numerical system.

Sam Freedman, a former DfE policy adviser, added on Twitter: “I think people may be underestimating how unhappy the 22 and 23 cohorts are going to be with big grade drops. It’s never happened before.”

But Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons education committee, said the announcement was an “important step to unbake grade inflation”.

A spokesperson for Ucas said: “University admissions teams are used to dealing with differences in grade profiles, as movements in grade distribution are a feature of every cycle.

“Students who received their grades in 2021 reapplying for 2022 entry, especially to the most selective courses, will have their grades considered alongside other assessment criteria, such as personal statements, references, interviews and admissions tests, in the same way as students applying for the first time in 2022.”

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