Ofqual sets out proposal for external exam papers to support teacher-assessed grades this summer

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Lucie Carlier

Any externally set papers produced to help teachers grade their students for this summer’s cancelled GCSE, AS and A level exams will need to be “exceptionally well designed”, school leaders have warned.

The proposal is one of the headline measures included in Ofqual’s consultation over how examination grades will be awarded this year.

Published last week, the consultation runs only until January 29. For GCSE, AS and A levels, it proposes that in summer 2021, a student’s grade in each subject will be based on teacher assessment.

It is proposed that this assessment is made “towards the end of the academic year, at about the time students would have taken their exams” – which would be around May to early June. Grades would be submitted to exam boards in mid-June with results likely in July.

Students would then be given the chance to appeal if they wished. Appeals will be heard by schools and colleges in the first instance. Further appeals would also be possible to the exam boards, although these would only be allowed if the school had not followed the exam board’s procedural requirements.

After being asked by education secretary Gavin Williamson to consider the use of externally set papers, Ofqual has included in its consultation a proposal to make papers available to support teachers in reaching their decisions on grades. The consultation asks whether these papers should be optional or mandatory.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that there are important questions to be resolved “around exactly how externally set papers taken in the summer term will provide fairness and consistency for students whose learning has been disrupted by the pandemic to greatly varying extents”.

Responding to the opening of the consultation, he said: “We can see how a set of papers with flexibility for teachers over the choice of topics on which their students could answer questions might achieve these objectives.

“However, these papers will need to be exceptionally well designed, and this will be a huge challenge given that time is short and nothing like this has been attempted before.”

The National Association of Head Teachers, meanwhile, said that externally set assessments “could be of significant benefit”. General secretary Paul Whiteman added: “The evidence-base which schools and colleges have to assess students is much smaller than last year. The current year 11 and year 13 have had significant disruption across both years of their courses and they have had a maximum of 15 weeks face-to-face teaching since March 2020. But it is absolutely vital that teachers are given the flexibility to adapt these assessments to assess students on what they have been taught; a one size test will not fit all.”

The Ofqual consultation says that the externally set papers would “help teachers make objective decisions”. The idea is that teachers would use the papers with their students as part of their assessment.

It adds: “This consultation seeks views on whether such papers should be provided and, if so, what form they should take (could they, for example, use materials from previous past papers), when they should be made available, and whether their use should be mandated.

“Provision of papers by exam boards would support consistency within and between schools and colleges. The teacher, through the marking of the papers, could consider the evidence of the student’s work and use that to inform their assessment of the grade deserved.

“The exam boards could also sample teachers’ marking as part of the external quality assurance arrangements and to seek to ensure this was comparable across different types of school and college, wherever students are studying. The use of exam board papers could also help with appeals.”

The papers would use questions that are “similar in style and format” to normal examination questions. The papers would cover “a reasonable proportion of the content” and teachers “should also have some choice of the topics on which their students could answer questions”.

The consultation adds: “The set of papers could allow teachers the ability to choose from a set of shorter papers, based on topics, to allow teachers options to take account of content that has not been fully taught due to the disruption. In that scenario, multiple papers might be chosen to ensure sufficient coverage of what is assessed.

“If, following this consultation, we decide that the exam boards should provide papers for schools and colleges to use (either on a compulsory or optional basis), the exam boards would need to develop those papers and then provide information on the topics that would be included within them.”

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said that the papers must not “form the sum total of the evidence upon which decisions about grades can be based”. He added: “It will be far more accurate to base grades on a range of evidence and if government is genuine about trusting teachers then they will allow them as professionals, to determine what evidence is best to use.”

The consultation sets out that teachers should take into account other evidence, whether or not they use any externally set papers.

The proposals state that teachers can devise their own assessment materials – although these must be comparable in demand to any papers provided by exam boards. They can also use formal tests, mock exam results, and “substantial candidate work” relating to the qualification specification.

The consultation adds: “We propose that the exam boards should provide guidance on how teachers should take account of other evidence of the standard at which the student was working and of factors that might have affected their performance in the papers. In all cases we propose that teachers should record the evidence on which they base their decision for each student. This will be essential if students choose to appeal. It will also be needed by the exam boards for quality assurance arrangements.”

Speaking more generally about the proposals, Mr Barton said: “The proposals avoid the pitfalls of last summer by jettisoning any notion of trying to standardise grades by using an algorithm. However, this will mean that the support and guidance provided to schools and colleges, and the quality assurance processes, will need to be clear and logical in order to ensure that there is consistency in how grades are awarded. All of this adds up to a huge and complex task for the exam boards.”

Mr Whiteman added: “Our members are clear that they want to maximise learning time and ensure the learning experience given to all students will help them prepare for their next steps. To allow for this, final assessments must take place as late as possible in the summer term, in June when exams were due to take place, and over a period of time which does not put unreasonable pressure onto students.”

It comes alongside a second consultation over alternative arrangements for the award of vocational and technical qualifications, including BTECs, which also closes on January 29.

The document seeks views on how practical exams and assessments that are required to demonstrate occupational competence for employment and Apprenticeships can still go ahead. However, it warns that where these exams cannot go ahead safely, “they should be delayed”.

Meanwhile, written exams for VTQs that are taken instead of or alongside GCSEs and A levels will not happen and alternative arrangements are to be put in place.

  • Ofqual: Consultation on how GCSE, AS and A level grades should be awarded in summer 2021, January 15, 2021 (deadline January 29): http://bit.ly/2XVGTvl
  • Ofqual: Consultation on alternative arrangements for the award of VTQs and other general qualifications in 2021, January 15, 2021 (deadline January 29): http://bit.ly/3qBcyhV


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