Cancelled exams: Consultation to probe using 'externally set tasks or papers' to help teacher-assessed grading

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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A rapid two-week consultation over the awarding of this year’s cancelled GCSE, A level and other vocational examinations is to be published imminently.

The joint consultation will be run by the Department for Education (DfE) and exams watchdog Ofqual, education secretary Gavin Williamson has confirmed.

In a letter to Ofqual’s chief regulator Simon Lebus, published by the DfE on Wednesday (January 13), Mr Williamson said we can expect the consultation to be published in the coming days and to run for a fortnight.

In the letter, Mr Williamson reiterates his view given in Parliament last week that grades should be awarded based on teacher assessment and not an algorithm.

He adds: “It is my view that a teacher’s final judgement on a student’s grade ought to be as late as possible in the academic year to maximise remaining teaching time and ensure students are motivated to remain engaged in education.

“This year we are asking teachers to assess their students, and it is my view that we should seek ways to support them to do so in a fair and consistent fashion.

“A breadth of evidence should inform teachers’ judgements, and the provision of training and guidance will support teachers to reach their assessment of a student’s deserved grade. This should be drawn out in the consultation.”

Mr Williamson also wants Ofqual to investigate the possibility of “providing externally set tasks or papers, in order that teachers can draw on this resource to support their assessments of students”.

He added: “We should seek views in the consultation on what broader evidence should determine a teacher’s assessment of a student’s grade and whether we should require or recommend the use of the externally set tasks or papers. We should also seek to minimise the additional burdens for teachers and schools created by this need for evidence.”

The letter emphasises that students should be assessed based on what they have learnt, rather than against content they have not had a chance to study. It adds: “We have agreed that we will not use an algorithm to set or automatically standardise anyone’s grade.”

Last summer’s exam grading fiasco was sparked because the DfE and Ofqual relied on a flawed algorithm to allocated grades rather than using teacher-assessed grades.

Mr Williamson said that schools should undertake “quality assurance of their teachers’ assessments” and there should also be “external checks in place to support fairness and consistency between different institutions and to avoid schools and colleges proposing anomalous grades”.

However, he said that any changes to grades as a result of external review “should be the exception”. He added: “Any changes should be based on human decisions, not by an automatic process or algorithm.”

The letter also states: “There should also be a route for any student who does not believe their grade reflects the standard of their work to request a review and appeal their grade, the details of which we should explore fully in the consultation.”

Mr Williamson is also asking Ofqual to look at vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs). He has instructed that for assessments in February and March, these should go ahead with full protective measures in place if students need to demonstrate their proficiency in order to enter employment.

However, he adds: “Given the further disruption, for all other VTQs with written exams scheduled in February and March (including BTECs and other qualifications included in performance tables) it is no longer viable for these exams to go ahead. Views on alternative arrangements for these qualifications should be sought in the consultation.”

For VTQ assessments from April to August, such as for BTECs, Cambridge Nationals and Technicals – which last year received calculated results – Mr Williamson said: “It is my expectation that a similar group of qualifications will again, this year, need to have alternative arrangements to examined assessments and that we should use this consultation to seek views on the detail of these arrangements and the qualifications in scope of this approach.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that the education secretary’s letter set out “broad and sensible parameters” for assessing GCSEs and A levels.

However, he added: “As ever, the devil will be in the detail of how this is turned into reality. We are relieved to see confirmation that no algorithm will be applied this year following last summer’s grading debacle.

“One of the key issues, however, will be precisely how any system of externally set assessment would work and how this can be done in a way that ensures fairness for students who have been heavily disrupted by the pandemic.

“It is vital that the final plans not only provide fairness and consistency but that they are also workable for schools, colleges and teaching staff who will have to put them into practice. We look forward to engaging in the forthcoming consultation and we will do everything possible to support this process.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, added: “The principle of trusting teachers rather than algorithms is absolutely the right one to take. The fact that the government originally did not do so last summer was what caused upset and chaos for students. However, there is little detail as of yet as to how this trust will actually manifest itself – and actions speak louder than words.

“Had the government listened to the NEU and put in place a contingency plan sooner we would be in a better position now to make sure grades could be awarded reliably and without creating severe workload issues for education staff and students. We will continue to talk with Ofqual, DfE and awarding bodies to make sure education staff’s voices are heard but we need to see the full details of the process as soon as possible in order to be assured that grades will be fair for all and that it will be manageable for school and college staff, and students.”


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