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Exams set to return as DfE and Ofqual confirm plans for summer 2022

Today (30 Sept) the Department for Education (@EducationGovUK) and @Ofqual publish plans for next year’s exams, with adaptations in place to ensure fairness, recognising the impact of the pandemic on students’ learning. The department and Ofqual will also be proposing contingency measures, and Ofqual is setting out plans for its grading approach.

Following a public consultation, the government and Ofqual have confirmed changes such as a choice of topics in some GCSE exams like English literature and history; advance information on the focus of exams to focus students’ revision in subjects, where there is not a choice of topics; and support materials like formulae sheets in maths.

GCSE, AS and A level exams in England next summer will be adapted to maximise fairness and help students reach their potential:

  • Students to sit GCSE, A and AS level exams next year with adaptations to make up for disruption to learning  
  • Ofqual sets out plans for fair and measured grading in 2022 and a return to normal standards by 2023
  • Plans will support students to achieve their best while ensuring fairness for those most affected by the pandemic

These plans recognise the disruption caused to this year group’s education as a result of the pandemic, while balancing the need to return to exams as the fairest possible form of assessment.

With exams set to return, Ofqual has also set out its approach to grading, following the last two years which saw an overall higher proportion of students receiving top grades compared to pre-pandemic years.

More students will get higher grades in 2022 than before the pandemic 

Next year will be a transition year to reflect the recovery period, with grade boundaries to be set by exam boards reflecting a midway point between 2021 and 2019 – so that more students get higher grades in 2022 than before the pandemic.

This approach will provide a safety net for this year’s students as well as a step back to normality, with results expected to return to the usual grade profile by 2023.

Nadhim 100x100Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said:   

“We’ve put fairness at the heart of our approach and listened to pupils, teachers and parents. The measures we’re putting in place will help reduce the impact of the significant disruption this group of young people have had to face – allowing them to move onto the next stage of their lives.

“We are committed to rigorous standards being fairly applied, and exams are the fairest way to assess students, which is why they will take place next year.”

The return to exams means teachers will be able to focus on teaching and helping students catch up on their learning, while adaptations ensure fairness for students and help them to focus their revision.   

The consultation gathered more than 6,000 responses – with almost a quarter from students – and showed that more than 90 per cent of students and parents were in favour of giving advance information and around 80 per cent or more agreed with offering choices of topics.  

It is the government’s firm intention that exams will take place next year, as the fairest way for students to show what they know and can do. But the government and Ofqual have also published proposals for Teacher Assessed Grades as a contingency measure if exams cannot go ahead, in the event that the course or impact of the pandemic changes.

Alongside this, the department has set out how these arrangements will apply to vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs).    

Ofqual Chief Regulator, Dr Jo Saxton, said: 

“The interests of learners are central to Ofqual’s mandate. For us, that means fairness. It means qualifications that stand the test of time, that employers, colleges and universities can trust.

“Our grading approach will recognise the disruption experienced by students taking exams in 2022. It will provide a safety net for those who might otherwise just miss out on a higher grade, while taking a step back to normal.

“Exams and other formal assessments are the best and fairest means of assessing students’ achievements. Choice in some subjects and advance information to support revision are intended to provide support for all as we emerge from the pandemic.”

Sector Reaction

tom bewick 100x100Tom Bewick, the Federation of Awarding Bodies Chief Executive said:

“It’s great to see the new chief regulator take early and decisive action on arrangements for next year.

“Learners deserve fair treatment and clarification about how general exams and VTQ assessments will get back to normal.

“We believe this package of measures, including proper contingency plans and transitional support, will restore greater public trust in how policy makers are running the system.”

Paul Whiteman 100x100On adaptations in 2022 summer exams Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

“We welcome the clarity for school leaders, teachers and students which comes from the decisions announced today, although it would have been far preferable to have this before the start of the autumn term. These changes and adaptations should help to mitigate the impacts of the disruption that students have experienced.

“Although we welcome the change to the original proposals regarding timescales for sharing advance information, NAHT remains concerned at the planned date of 7th February 2022 as this will limit the desired impact. Many students preparing for exams in 2022 have endured significant disruption to teaching and learning over the last year. While we hope this academic year won’t see the same levels of disruption, learning time has already been lost.

“Government has the flexibility for this information to be shared earlier in the academic year if circumstances require, but there is nothing to explain what would trigger that decision. Providing this information sooner would help to reduce the differential impact of the pandemic on students so far. It would also enable teachers to do the very best for each of their students, ensuring they cover as much of the specification as possible and that they are well prepared for the exams and assessments which allow them to progress to the next stage of education, training or employment.”

On grading in 2022 Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

“Whatever decision was made about the approach to grading in 2022, it would be open to criticism by some. The most important thing is that this decision has been made and everyone involved now knows what to expect. In the circumstances, this approach seems to be the one which recognises we are in a period of recovery and that will ensure as much fairness as possible for students in 2022 whose learning has already been significantly affected by the pandemic. It is absolutely vital that data is only used as a starting point for grading decisions in 2022 and that the grade boundaries are set by senior examiners with the expertise to consider the standard of work produced by students in their exams.”

On consultation on contingency arrangements for 2022 Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

“While we welcome today’s consultation, we had hoped that this process would have been completed by now. We have pressed for months for the government to provide information by the start of the autumn term on its contingency plans should exams need to be cancelled in 2022, but by the time these decisions are finalised, we will be halfway through the autumn term.

“The contingency plans must strike the right balance between flexibility and consistency. More consistency of approach to the collection of evidence of students work and the conditions under which this is completed will increase fairness and confidence in the grades awarded. But these plans must have enough flexibility to fulfil the core purpose of a contingency plan – to enable grades to be awarded to students by schools and colleges who will likely be facing different levels of challenge and disruption should exams need to be cancelled.

“It is vital that the collection of evidence to support awarding in the event that exams are cancelled works alongside the teaching, learning and assessment which teachers have planned for this year. It should not create significant additional workload for teachers nor add pressure to students who are working hard to complete their courses.”

david hughes 100 x100David Hughes, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC) said:

“Students and colleges want the assessment system for this academic year to be as fair as possible and to be as certain and stable as it can be given all of the disruption and uncertainties of the last 18 months. So it is good to see the way forward being published today.  

“There is no perfect way forward on grading given the different levels of disruption experienced by students over the last two years. Given that, the adaptations and additional support being planned for next summer and the general approach to grading being proposed are sensible and proportionate. Most importantly, they look like they will provide a safety net for learners so that they are not at any greater disadvantage given the disruptions to learning they might have suffered.  

“While the future looks more settled, we know the public health context can change and there is no guarantee that all exams will be able to take place next summer so we are keen to see early decisions on robust and workable contingency arrangements. There is understandable anxiety amongst teachers, lecturers, students and parents  about what will happen if learning or exams are disrupted again, so it is important to ensure students’ hard work and achievements can be recognised.

“I am very pleased that the government has listened to our advice to return to the pre-pandemic pattern of level 3 and level 2 results days in separate weeks later in August. Colleges are both ‘sending’ and ‘receiving’ institutions and they need to be able to support their leavers as well as their new starters. 

“We also need to look beyond 2022 and have a serious conversation about the future of exams and assessment and whether we can reduce our dependence on expensive high-stakes external written exams which are not necessarily the best preparation for work or further study. We know from vocational and technical assessments that a blended approach to grading can be very effective and fairer.”

Bill Watkin 100x100Commenting on today’s announcements, Bill Watkin, Chief Executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said:

“SFCA welcomes these decisions and the degree of both clarity and flexibility they contain. The plan to publish exam results later in August, as was traditionally the case, rather than the pandemic-era’s early August, will ensure that young people can receive the care and guidance they need at important transition points in their education. Students in Years 11 and 13 have experienced significant disruption to their learning over the last year and a half – but that disruption has not been the same for every student; and this unevenness makes it hard to ensure that students who have suffered most through lockdown and online learning are not penalised the most in next summer’s assessment and grading.

“The DfE and Ofqual seem to have got this right, with the plan to reduce the content in some subjects and give advance notice of topics in other subjects, and with the decision to delay the return of grade boundaries to 2019 levels. Of course, it will be important to emphasise the role of expert human beings in the grading exercise and to avoid any concerns about inappropriate uses of computer algorithms.”

dr Mary Bousted 100x100 edited 1Commenting on the confirmation of Ofqual’s plans for “fair and measured grading” in 2022, Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:  

“It is welcomed that an announcement has finally been made on exams, grading and contingency plans for 2022, however it has come far too late. We are two full months since the end of the consultation on exam adaptations, which itself lasted only three weeks. This is another example of teachers and leaders being asked to jump at the demand of government, when they won’t replicate the urgency of response themselves. 

“Not only will it frustrate education staff and students alike that this decision wasn’t taken and announced before learning began this academic year, it will also not allay the anxiety or answer the questions many of them have. 

“Only giving advanced information about the exams in time for revision will result in a ‘topic lottery’ where some students will have happened to have covered the topics on the exam in sufficient depth and others may well have not. Being told what the focus of the exam is after teaching and learning has finished is of no use if the focus of the exam is something you haven’t had chance to cover in sufficient depth, which would be the case for many due to the pandemic. This will have a disproportionate impact on those who suffered the greatest disruption to learning due to Covid – more often than not, the most disadvantaged students. 

“It smacks of a complete lack of understanding of the situation faced by many students and of misplaced priorities to suggest that concern over narrowing of curriculum, if this information were to be released earlier, outweighs the unfairness of one student walking into an exam having had less chance to cover the necessary topics than another. 

“The amendments to qualifications and assessment must give those who have been most severely impacted the best chance of a level playing field in order to ensure the best chance at fairness for as many students as possible. This announcement does not do that. Advanced information about exams will be announced in Spring. This is too late for teachers to prepare their pupils for the exams. Over one hundred thousand pupils are currently absent from school. These proposals take insufficient account of this absence and its effect on teachers’ ability to cover the syllabus and pupils’ ability to learn. These proposals regard this reality as an inconvenient truth and ignore the practical implications of the current disruption to education. 

“Whilst it is also helpful to at least have an idea of the contingency plans now, teachers and leaders have already had to try to guess what evidence to collect of the work students have done to this point. It is right that any such evidence should form part of the normal course of teaching and learning, but teachers and school leaders urgently need clear, consistent guidelines about what to collect along with resources to support them to avoid a repeat of the workload government imposed on teachers and students last year. 

“The government and Ofqual are picking an arbitrary number out of the air in order to determine how many of each grade will be issued next summer. Such a random act undermines their argument that exams are the fairest way to assess students. Whilst last summer’s system wasn’t perfect, the grades at least were a reflection of what students themselves had done, rather than simply reflecting how much better or worse they were than their peers. We would welcome greater clarity and honesty as to the reasons behind the proposed rationing of success in 2022, 2023 and in a ‘normal’ year. 

“The pandemic has exposed great weaknesses in the system used to award qualifications and while exams have their place, it is disappointing to see that government and the regulator are not using the opportunity to honestly review the pitfalls of the status quo. The Independent Assessment Commission, funded by the NEU and one of many in a broad consensus of groups in the sector reconsidering secondary assessment, will take up these issues in its final report in November.” 

Kate Green MP 100x100Kate Green MP, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, responding to the publication of the government’s plans for exams in 2022, said: 

“Labour set out a comprehensive plan for 2022 exams weeks ago but students have been left anxiously waiting while the Conservatives dithered and delayed. 

“Over the next three years over 1.3 million children will leave school with no recovery support under the Conservative’s failing tutoring programme. 

“In contrast, Labour’s ambitious recovery plan – extending the school day for new activities, tutoring for all who need it, mental health support in every school – will deliver the new opportunities to learn, play and develop every child needs. It’s time the Conservatives match Labours ambition for children’s recovery and their futures.”

patrick roachDr Patrick Roach, General Secretary of the NASUWT-The Teachers’ Union, said:

“It is beyond disappointing that schools still do not have final confirmation of the arrangements that will be in place in case exams cannot go ahead as planned next year.

“The uncertainty and anxiety that has been caused by the failure to consult on and finalise these arrangements earlier cannot be underestimated. Teachers and students need to know what will be expected of them so they can make meaningful and manageable plans. However the announcement from the Government leaves teachers operating in the dark.

“Teachers will again be deeply frustrated that they are once more being called on to cover up the Government’s failure to put in place realistic and appropriate arrangements which will ensure fairness for pupils.

“The arrangements for teacher assessed grades (TAGs) used last summer created a nightmare of substantial unnecessary workload burdens for teachers and also resulted in students spending too much of their time undertaking assessments rather than focussing on learning.

“Many teachers reading the consultation document will be concerned that there is nothing proposed to ensure that the pressures of TAG-related assessment and moderation will not be repeated.

“The NASUWT again insists that robust measures and extra resources must be put in place to ensure that the unacceptable burdens generated by TAGs in 2021 are not replicated in 2022.

“Teachers cannot be expected simply to soldier on and continue to deal with the mess caused by the Government’s failure to urgently put in place appropriate assessment arrangements that will deliver fairness to all students.

“The NASUWT will be consulting with our members across the country; but we are clear that the measures announced today are insufficient and fail to demonstrate that Ministers have learned any lessons from the experience of the last year.

“The NASUWT has remained clear that if examinations do go ahead as planned, it is essential that adaptations to normal arrangements are made to address the disruption to learning students have faced as a result of the pandemic.

“While some of the measures announced today are potentially helpful, they do not go far enough. In particular, greater use should have been made of topic choice in examination papers and advance information of the focus of the content of exams should have made available as early as possible in the autumn term.”

Vince Green, Education Director at Summit Learning Trust said:

“Everyone at the Summit Learning Trust appreciated the announcement from Ofqual today.  Their statement brought welcome clarity and certainty on how exam grading will work next summer for students, teachers, parents and carers alike. 

“Our Year 11 and Year 13 students are glad to be back in the classroom and keen to make up for lost face-to-face learning time.  Year 11 students are so keen, in fact, that we have introduced an extra hour of teaching a day for them across all our schools to make sure they all receive enhanced support and guidance leading up to their examinations. This equates to around an extra 6 weeks of schooling for every young person. 

“We have also provided all our Year 11 students with high quality sets of revision materials for free to make sure they have everything they need to continue their learning at home.  Investing in our students demonstrates our belief in them and we know they will make us proud next summer.”

Dr Hollie Chandler, Head of Policy (Higher Education) at the Russell Group, said:

“It is fair that as we emerge from the pandemic, 2022 will be a transition year for exams and assessments, given the disruption students have faced to their studies. The confirmation of details for A level exams in a timely fashion as well as a consultation on contingencies provides helpful certainty for universities as they plan their offer making and admissions decisions.

“Russell Group universities are very conscious that Covid-19 has disrupted the studies of many students making the transition to higher education. We recently launched Jumpstart University with The Open University to provide free resources – open to students enrolling at any institution – to help them prepare for and settle into their studies at university.”

Responding to the plans for grading next year, David Robinson, Director of Post-16 and Skills at the Education Policy Institute (EPI) said: 

“The government and Ofqual have had to choose between a number of imperfect solutions for next year’s exams, but this approach is the fairest and most pragmatic.  

“Setting the distribution of grades for 2022 between that of 2019 and 2021 offers some protection to a cohort of students who have seen their education heavily disrupted. It avoids any sudden shifts in grades between this year group and those in the two year groups preceding them, meaning they are less likely to lose out in the labour market or upon entry to university. 

“A chief concern of ours that is yet to be addressed by the government is the large gap between students taking academic and vocational qualifications. Academic students saw far greater increases in their grades in 2020 and 2021 and may continue to do so under these plans. The government must take action and provide assurances to vocational students that they will not lose out under this system.”

Advance information to help students focus their revision over the final months will be given for summer exams in early February and the timing will be kept under review subject to the course of the pandemic.

Results for exams next year will return to their normal format, with AS and A levels being released on 18 August, and GCSEs on 25 August. VTQs used to progress in a similar way will be issued on or before the same days, and other VTQs results will continue to be issued throughout the year.

The Government has committed to an ambitious and long-term education recovery plan, including an investment to date of over £3bn, helping young people prepare for exams as well as supporting school-aged children across the country. This includes a significant expansion of the tutoring programme, to support children and young people to make up for learning lost during the pandemic.  

Advance information on the focus of the assessment, will be an adaptation for some vocational and technical qualifications, that are most like and often taken alongside GCSE and A levels.

Project and Advanced Extension Award qualifications will not have changes made to the way in which they are delivered and assessed in 2022, but they will be subject to the contingency arrangements to be confirmed in due course.

Adaptations for Vocational and Technical Qualifications have already been confirmed, following consultation.

Colleges and schools are now being made aware of these changes by their awarding organisations.  

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