Exams: Schools reserve judgement on utility of advance information

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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With GCSEs and A levels all but certain to take place this summer, schools are rushing to get to grips with advance information on exam content after it was finally published by Ofqual.

School leaders have warned that given the complex nature of the advance information and differing approaches from subject to subject, it will be some days before we know whether if the measures are sufficient to address the disruption to exam students’ education during the pandemic.

Others have said the information comes too late should any of the topics on the list have not been studied due to Covid disruption and staff or pupil absence.

The National Education Union said that this was always the “flaw” in producing advanced information to aid revision but not teaching and learning in the first place.

Some exam content, texts, topics and sub-topics, themes and skills due to be assessed have been made available for the majority of GCSE, AS and A level subjects.

The aim is to help students focus their revision without providing exact questions that will appear.

Other adaptations include a choice of topics in GCSEs like English literature, history and geography, and support materials in maths and some science exams such as formulae or equation sheets. There are changes to the requirements for practical assessments in sciences and art and design, too.

Ofqual also confirmed last term that grading this year will be more generous than pre-pandemic in order to “recognise the challenges these students have faced”.

The exams watchdog is moving back to normal grading over a two-year period, meaning this summer is a transition year and grades will return to the usual grade profile by 2023.

Chief regulator of Ofqual, Dr Jo Saxton, writing in September (Saxton, 2021), confirmed: “In 2022 exam boards will set the grade boundaries based on a profile that reflects a midpoint between 2021 and pre-pandemic grading.

“As in any other year, exam boards will use data as a starting point, to align their standards in a subject. That will be based on an average of 2019 and 2021 results for each subject. But the grade boundaries for each specification will be set by the senior examiners, after they have reviewed the work produced by students. Results overall will be higher than in 2019, and not as high as in 2020. The exact position may vary by subject and by grade.”

Schools reserve judgements

Sarah Hannafin, senior policy advisor for at the National Association of Head Teachers, reminded us this week that the advance information is not “a simple list of what is assessed in the exam”. She explained: “The information is more complex, covers only high tariff questions and might relate to only a particular exam paper or section of it, with different approaches between specifications and subjects.

“We need to remember this is new to teachers so it will only be over the coming days that we learn whether they believe it will be sufficient to counter the levels of disruption which students have faced due to Covid.”

Indeed, one teacher who contacted SecEd is furious: “Speaking to colleagues about different (exam) boards and different subjects (maths, science, business etc) it is clear there are similarities and differences and hence no over-arching common policy. In business for example different boards have agreed to take out topics whereas in mathematics , there is no such approach.

“One might include the fact they have listed the topics that can be expected in the exam this summer. Great if you have had little issue but this does not address the central tenet that the process should be assisting those who have missed a chunk of the course.”

The sentiment is echoed by Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, who said that the advanced information has come “too late” to help teaching and learning.

“There are grave concerns among teachers of exam groups that this will not be enough to fairly mitigate the disruption these students have experienced over two academic years.

"The government’s intention of releasing this information only in time for revision and not to aid teaching and learning, always carried with it a critical flaw – if one of the topics you see on the list is one you couldn’t cover at all or in as much depth through no fault of your own, due to Covid-related disruption, what do you do now? There is just one half-term left until Easter, close to when exams begin, and little time to rush through any content. Yet this is the situation many students will face, which is going to create stress and pressure.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added: “It is a complicated exercise involving an array of subjects across different exam boards. Schools and colleges will be looking closely at how well this measure works and we will be studying their feedback over the next few days.”

Exams all-but-certain to go ahead

Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said on Monday (February 7) that he “firmly intended” for exams to take place this summer. GCSE, AS and A level exams for each subject have been spread out to maximise the opportunity for students to sit exams this year.

And in making the argument that exams will go ahead as normal, both the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofqual pointed to the fact that more than 500,000 exam entries for vocational and technical qualifications “successfully took place in January, giving confidence in the exams system”.

A DfE statement added: “The government is fully committed to exams going ahead this summer and does not expect that to change except in the very unlikely case of a public health emergency which would prevent students being able to physically sit exams.”

Mr Zahawi said: “Exams are the best and fairest form of assessment, and we firmly intend for them to take place this summer, giving students a fair chance to show what they know. The information to help with their revision, as well as the range of other adaptations, will make sure they can do themselves justice in their exams this summer.”

  • Ofqual: Guidance: Subject-by-subject support for GCSE, AS and A level students in 2022, February 7, 2022: https://bit.ly/3LkTbFa
  • Ofqual: Collection: GCSE, AS and A level qualifications in 2022, last updated February 2022: https://bit.ly/3uCSlO6
  • Saxton: Ofqual’s approach to grading exams and assessments in summer 2022 and autumn 2021, September 2021: https://bit.ly/3386PKB


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