From education to employment

Dear Ofqual..

Dennis Sherwood

How reliable are GCSE, AS and A level grades? One source claims “reliable to one grade either way”; another denies this. This open letter by Dennis Sherwood to exam regulator Ofqual seeks the truth…

20 July 2023

Dear Ofqual,

I wonder if you would be so kind as to help, please – I’m confused.

House of Lords Education Committee Hearing (29 June 2023)

A short while ago, on 29 June, the House of Lords Education for 11-16 Year Olds Committee convened a hearing at which your Chair, Sir Ian Bauckham, and Chief Regulator, Dr Jo Saxton, were invited to give evidence.

During the meeting, Lord Watson of Invergowrie referred to a statement, made to the Commons’ Education Committee on 2 September 2020 by Ofqual’s then Chief Regulator, Dame Glenys Stacey, that grades ‘are reliable to one grade either way’ (Q1059).

Lord Watson then asked ‘will the grades to be awarded in August this year be ‘reliable to one grade either way’? And if that’s not the case, how reliable will they be?’. (12:34:20)

Contradictory Statements on Grade Reliability

I’ve listened carefully to the hearing’s recording, and it seems to me that the key point made in the answer given by Dr Saxton was ‘I can assure the Committee and young people who will receive their grades this summer that they can be relied on, that they will be fair, and that the quality assurance around them is as good as it is possible to be’. (About 12:35:28)

That is indeed most reassuring. But is that contradicting Dame Glenys’s statement that grades ‘are reliable to one grade either way’? If it is, then I am indeed puzzled.

The issue of the reliability of grades is important, for students’ destinies depend on them. Not only that: belief in the integrity of grades is fundamental to public trust in the exam system – as indeed enshrined in the legislation placing a duty on Ofqual not only ‘to secure that regulated qualifications give a reliable indication of knowledge, skills and understanding’, but also ‘to promote public confidence in regulated qualifications’.

The 2019 News Item and Dr. Saxton’s Interview

The apparent discrepancy between the recent statement of 29 June and the earlier one of 2 September 2020 caused me to look around, leading me to discover a news item, posted to the Ofqual website on 11 August 2019, which includes these words:

On that basis, more than one grade could well be a legitimate reflection of a student’s performance and they would both be a sound estimate of that student’s ability at that point in time based on the available evidence from the assessment they have undertaken.

I then found that exactly the same words were used by Dr Saxton in an interview with the distinguished school educationalist, Laura McInerney, posted on YouTube on 8 August 2022 (about 9:19 here).

If ‘more than one grade could well be a legitimate reflection of a student’s performance’, why does only one grade appear on a candidate’s certificate? What other ‘legitimate grades’ might there be? Might one be a higher grade? Is the grade on the certificate more ‘legitimate’ than the grades that aren’t?

I realise that 2019 is a long time ago, and of course the Covid crisis – and the CAGs and TAGs – intervened. But since Dr Saxton made precisely the same statement as recently as August 2022, ‘more than one grade could well be a legitimate reflection of a student’s performance’ must be true. And to me, that is remarkably similar to Dame Glenys Stacey’s statement that grades ‘are reliable to one grade either way’.

Reference to Dr. Michelle Meadows’ Statement

One other point, if I may, please.

In the reply to Lord Invergowrie’s question, reference was made to a statement made by the former Ofqual Director, Dr Michelle Meadows. I wonder if that might be to the evidence given by Dr Meadows at the hearing of 30 March 2023 at which, according to the recording, Dr Meadows said ‘It’s really important that people don’t put too much weight on any individual grade’? (About 11:57:54)

Unfortunately, Dr Meadows did not describe what people should do with apparently ‘weightless’ grades, but that does seem to be a rather strong hint that perhaps grades are not as reliable and trustworthy as ‘people’ in general, and students in particular, might wish them to be.

Putting all that together, I am – as I have stated – confused.

Four statements – the news item of 11 August 2019, Dame Glenys Stacey’s of 2 September 2020, Dr Saxton’s interview of 8 August 2022, and Dr Michelle Meadows’s of 30 March 2023 – all suggest, directly or indirectly, that grades are unreliable.

On the other hand is Dr Saxton’s statement of 29 June that ‘grades this summer can be relied on, that they are fair’.


I appreciate, of course, the significance of evidence given to a Parliamentary Select Committee. As a non-ministerial government department, Ofqual – like several other bodies, including Ofsted – is accountable directly to Parliament through the Commons’ and Lords’ Select Committees, as indeed was recently acknowledged by Amanda Spielman, the Chief Inspector of Schools (about 12:07:12).

Hence this letter. I would much appreciate your advice on just how reliable grades are – or indeed are not.

As I mentioned earlier, grades are important.

Students’ destinies depend on them.

By Dennis Sherwood, campaigner for the delivery of reliable and trustworthy school exam grades

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