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Our recommendations for GCSE and A-level assessments in 2021

Teach First submitted evidence to the Ofqual and Department for Education consultation on how GCSE, AS and A-level grades should be awarded in summer 2021.

In our response (submitted in late January 2021) we sought to represent the interests of those who have faced the biggest challenges during lockdown, and to ensure they are given the best chances of success as they progress into the next steps of their education and careers.


GCSE and A-level assessments will be nothing like usual this year. Exams are cancelled and teachers have again been asked to make judgments on what they believe their students would have achieved if they had been sitting exams.

In a normal year Teach First believes that exams are the best and fairest way to assess what pupils have learned. But students being assessed in 2021 have vastly different education experiences over this past year. Access to quality education has always been unequal, but inequality has been exacerbated to the point where fair assessment is not achievable. Prior to the second round of school closures there were already significant differences in how much time pupils had spent in school, even within one school, year group, or bubble.

Pupil access to learning has depended on factors entirely outside of their control, such as local infection rates and access to digital learning devices at home. Our research found that 84% of schools with the poorest pupils lack sufficient devices to ensure pupils could study at home. The Sutton Trust recently found that over half (55%) of teachers at the least affluent state schools are reporting a lower than normal standard of work returned by pupils since the shutdown, compared to 41% at the most affluent state schools and 30% at private schools.1 With an estimated 150,000 more children living in poverty now compared to at the beginning of the pandemic,2 it is safe to assume learning conditions have not improved for the children already facing the greatest challenges.

We cannot allow this year of disrupted learning to put poor children at a further disadvantage. The education system must over the coming months and years centre around the students who have been most harmed by the pandemic. This includes 2021 assessment decisions, which need to balance two core priorities: preparing students for their next step and making sure they leave with the qualifications they deserve and will need later in life.

Preparing students for the future

Grading is important. But more focus should be on how to prepare young people for their next steps and beyond. Grades this year are more likely to reflect potential rather than exact estimates of the knowledge students have gained. So, we must now work to ensure they are equipped to flourish after this year.

Teach First believes part of the summer term should be dedicated to provide students support ahead of progressing to their next destination. Many students and parents are concerned about what next academic year holds in store for them. In a recent survey of parents commissioned by Teach First, 69% of parents of 15-year-olds were worried about how ready their child is for the next academic year – a higher proportion than the parents of any other age group.1 As outlined further below, we believe all CAGs should be submitted by the end of May, which leaves time in June where students would usually have been sitting exams. This presents an excellent opportunity to provide students with more support as they progress to their next stage than ever before.

In June, transitioning year groups should be asked to sign up for activities that will help them prepare for what is to come. These could range from intensive tuition provided by partners in the National Tutoring Programme, to visiting future destinations with taster classes or exercises. For those students who are unsure about their immediate future, this could be turned into something positive; instead of being left to navigate all the options and requirements by themselves during and following exams, careers leaders should dedicate the summer term to collaborate with local education institutions and employers to provide insight and as much direct experience of different opportunities as time and the pandemic will allow.

These initiatives would require planning, and representatives from colleges, apprenticeship providers, universities and schools should be offered opportunities to convene as soon as possible, and funding would be needed to make this happen. The priority should be to cater to the needs of schools and colleges with more disadvantaged intakes, where the risks of the past year’s learning loss are greater.

If stakeholders are given the opportunity and resources to plan and carry this out, we could make sure that this year’s cohorts are as ready (if not even more) than the cohorts gaining their GCSE and A-level qualifications in a normal year. And if there is a cohort who have deserved to be given this chance, it’s them.

Recommendations for 2021 assessments

Teachers should be encouraged to consider pupils’ performance and potential, grounded in evidence including their progress before lockdown and the quality of their work relative to this year’s circumstances. We acknowledge this won’t be an exact science, but it is preferable to holding pupils with unequal experiences accountable to equal standards.

If students are awarded grades which only reflect the standard at which they are currently performing, too many young people who have had the worst lockdown circumstances will be penalised by not gaining qualifications they may need not only for what they’re going on to do next, but for the rest of their lives.

Exam board papers

As proposed by Ofqual, exam boards should offer a ‘menu’ of papers to schools. These could help teachers decide on grades through a recent reference and allow students to experience an exam-like context. These papers should be optional, as mandating their use would suggest a level of comparability between pupils and schools which cannot be attained this year.

Exam board quality assurance and moderation

Exam boards should publish guidance on the marking of papers and methods to decide on students’ grades. Ofqual’s analysis of last year’s CAGs showed no indication of biases against groups of students in line with protected characteristics or socioeconomic backgrounds, and this is credit to teachers in their handling of the assessments. To support as fair awarding as possible schools should still be provided with guidance on how to prevent such biases, and how to identify and address potential cases of bias before grades are submitted.

In 2020, the decision to award CAGs significantly increased grades. For example, from 2016/17 to 2018/19 the proportion of GCSE pupils who passed English and maths at grade 5 or above increased from 39.6% to 40.1% - in 2020, the equivalent figure was 49.9%.

The grade increases are not surprising. Teachers know their students’ potential, but have no way of knowing the factors that would determine their performance on exam day – after all, some parts are left to chance.

We can therefore expect generosity in grading again this year and for students to leave Year 11 and Year 13 with higher than average grades. However, no teacher has any interest in awarding their students grades which could lead them into further training or education where there is a high risk they won’t be successful. Teachers want their pupils to thrive, and that is not achieved by awarding grades that provide access to courses where their knowledge gaps mean they would fall further behind or risk dropping out. Schools also have a responsibility to keep an equal playing field between their students and those gaining their qualifications elsewhere, and therefore keeping their results realistic.

Considering the above, we do not expect the grades this year will greatly inflate compared to last year’s CAGs.

As a safeguard against unreasonable levels of grade inflation, schools should be prepared to provide evidence for their decisions. Those schools which exceed their 2019 results and/or their average annual progress from 2017 to 2019 by the highest margins could then be asked by exam boards to provide evidence for their decision. This could be progress data from this year’s cohort compared to previous cohorts, coursework, mock exams and/or exam board papers. Exam boards should only be able to change students’ grades following a review of the evidence and discussion with the school or college.


Schools should submit grades ahead of Summer Half Term, after which students should immediately be informed of them. This would leave space in June for schools to deal with any student appeals. We recognise that schools are worried about the workload associated with handling student appeals, but if grades are awarded based on teachers’ judgments, it is only the school that would have the evidence to manage appeals. In the 2018-19 academic year, only 0.05% of grades were challenged. Of these, only 16% were changed. This year will be very different, and students may be more likely to appeal a grade they know is decided by their teacher.

Efforts need to be made to discourage speculative appeals without evidence. Students should be made aware that an appeal is no more likely to be successful than in an exam year, and that if a school changes grades to an extent that they move into the top margin of grade increases (as set out previously), the exam board will have to quality assure their overall awarding, which in the worst case could affect the grades of all of their peers. It should also be made clear that grades are overall more likely to be generous this year, based on evidence from last year, decreasing the likelihood of the need to appeal.

A nominal fee for each appeal could be considered, although this would need to be waived for students in low-income households.

Students should be given the option to sit exams in September, if following their appeal or a potential moderation after exam board discussion, they are not happy with their outcomes.

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