Education view: Making sense of the results this year 

King Alfred School

A lesson at King Alfred School - Credit: Stephen Bates

With exams cancelled for the second year in a row, grades were once again determined by teachers. Using grade descriptors issued by exam boards, they graded portfolios of assessments for each student in each subject. Guidelines on how the process should work was set out by the body that oversees grading (JCQ) and there was a light touch external quality assurance process to ensure schools followed the rules. 

As I am sure you have seen, the national picture of grades improved this year. This was particularly marked at the top end of A-level where A and A* grades increased to 44 per cent from 38pc in 2020 and 25pc in 2019 (when exams last took place). Increases at GCSE were more modest with a rise to 29pc of grade 7 and above (A and above in old money) from 26pc in 2020 and 21pc in 2019. 

So, what is going on here? Were 2021 students brighter? Were teachers too generous? Did smaller chunks of assessment overtime benefit more students than big exams on one day? 

As with any shift, there are multiple reasons. However, the main factor is due to the suspension of the cap on the number of each grade - a system which has been in place for the past 10 years.

Comparative outcomes

King Alfred School headteacher Robert Lobatto. Picture: Stephen Bates

Robert Lobatto explains the grade inflation - Credit: Stephen Bates

In 2010, concerns from the new Tory/Lib Dem coalition government about ‘grade inflation’ meant that Ofqual was charged by the government to limit the number of each grade to a percentage of the cohort. Before that time, results were based solely on whether a student met the criteria for a particular grade (an approach called ‘criterion referenced’). Results had been rising steadily as exams and mark schemes became more transparent, teaching improved and arguably accountability measures increased. Now, however, A and A* grades at A level were set at approximately 25pc of students, with minor variations each year. This methodology was called ‘comparative outcomes’. 

One reason behind this was to ensure that when syllabus is changed, the number of higher grades did not decrease. There is a well-established pattern that when a new course is introduced students do less well largely because teachers are less familiar with the content and the type of assessment.

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Comparative outcomes meant that no particular cohort would be disadvantaged when such changes occurred. However, the other side was that even if students were doing better, grades would not increase. 

In 2020, the ill-fated algorithm was designed to keep this cap. In reality, it led to such great unfairness on an individual level, it was swiftly abandoned. The results were reissued four days later on the basis of the teacher assessments alone. In other words, there the cap was removed.

In 2021 the methodology for assessment was different to 2020, but again there was no cap. Results were entirely ‘criterion referenced’; they were decided solely by teachers who matched the grade descriptors to the evidence in each individual student portfolio. 

Good or bad?

The subsequent question is whether this is a good or bad thing. The answer will depend largely on what someone wants from the grades. Do we want a rank order? Or do we want to know what young people can do in terms of skills knowledge and understanding? 

As an educator for the last 30 years, and a headteacher for half of this time, I firmly come down on the side of the latter. If students have worked hard for their achievement, then the grades should reflect what they can do. We moved away a long time ago from ranking children in their class as the negative consequences significantly outweighed any perceived advantages. Why then do we persist with the same principles in public exams? When someone takes their driving test, their music exam, or indeed their professional exams, we do not limit the number of successes. If you meet the criteria, you get the certificate. This in my view should also be the principles upon which the public exam system is based, as it is in many other countries. 

What will happen next year? 

All eyes are now on the secretary of state for education concerning the exams from 2022 onwards. Will the cap return? If so, will it be pegged to 2020 figures or possibly back to 2019 figures? This decision will have significant implications for many hundreds of thousands of students. Those taking exams in 2022 may well be competing for university places against those who got grades in 2021, and it is not going to be straightforward for universities to fairly assess candidates competing for the same places. 

It is ultimately a political question, underpinned by the assumptions we carry about individuals and society, and how achievement should be recognised.