How 2021 could look for students and learners – we want your views

How 2021 could look for students and learners – we want your views

Posted by: Simon Lebus, Posted on: Categories: A levels and GCSEs, Coronavirus (COVID-19), Vocational and technical qualifications

We are consulting on arrangements for awarding grades for GCSE, AS and A levels this summer and on awarding arrangements for a range of vocational and technical qualifications.  We are consulting jointly with the Department for Education.

If you are a student or learner who was due to take exams, or the parent or carer of a student, we want to hear from you. We also want to hear from those who will have to put these arrangements in place – teachers, trainers, exams officers, headteachers, college leaders and exam boards. There will be many others who have an interest, including employers, and those who work in higher education. Please do give us your views.

I understand how difficult the past 9 months have been. Students and learners have suffered disruption to their studies and many have told us how anxious they feel. Others are disappointed that the exams they have worked hard for cannot take place. Schools and colleges have had to work in exceptional circumstances.  Many parents have had to juggle work with home schooling. The operations of many industries and sectors have been disrupted. We know that everyone wants clarity on the way ahead quickly.

At Ofqual, we have been planning for different scenarios for some time. We have learned valuable lessons from last summer. The pandemic has placed greater challenges on all of us, but all those working in education – schools, teachers, colleges, training providers, unions, awarding organisations and exam boards – have learned a great deal from our shared experiences over the past 9 months. Ofqual has a wealth of research and expertise to draw on.

It is important that we consult so that those who will be affected can have their say on the way forward.  And we, together with the Department for Education, will need to consider the responses carefully. Students and learners will carry these grades with them for life, so we must make sure they are as fair as they can be in these difficult circumstances. We expect to publish the next steps by the end of February.

Above all, we need to support students to carry on with their education for the remainder of the academic year. The knowledge, skills and understanding that students can acquire will stand them in good stead for the next part of their lives.

Before circumstances changed and the government took the difficult decision to close schools and colleges to most students, our strong preference, and government policy, was for exams to go ahead. Exams and formal assessments are the fairest way of assessing what a student knows, understands and can do.

The Secretary of State’s preference is that in summer 2021 students taking GCSEs, AS and A levels should be given grades based on teacher assessments. These could use a wide range of evidence, with exam boards providing support and guidance.

It is important to say here that grades and assessments must reflect what a student knows, understands and can do. And they should enable a student or learner to progress to the next stage in their lives.

Grades have to be widely understood and respected, particularly by the people who use them. This includes higher and further education providers, and employers. Grades must reflect the standard at which a student or learner is performing. What they cannot do is take account of what someone could have potentially achieved, had the pandemic not happened. Grades and assessments are measurements, after all.

No assessment arrangements can take account of all the different ways that students have suffered from the pandemic and missed differing amounts of teaching and learning time. What is most important is that students keep learning for as long as possible. It is that which will put them in the best place to progress.

We would like to hear from candidates who are studying independently, or being home educated, as we recognise they too must be able to secure a grade in these unusual circumstances. And all students must have a route to appeal their grade.

We will do what we can to make sure students’ results are as fair as possible. This includes making sure schools and colleges are equipped and making use of exam boards’ and awarding organisations’ expertise.

The consultation for GCSE, AS and A levels explores the possibility of exam board-set papers. This would help provide an external benchmark for exam boards when implementing their quality assurance arrangements and also make appeals more straightforward. We need to make sure that, as far as possible, what a student may get in Bolton will be the same as a student with an equivalent level of attainment in Brighton.

Without exams, we won’t achieve the same degree of reliability and validity as in normal years. There won’t be the same checks and balances in the system this year, and it is likely to be the case that overall outcomes this year will look different from 2020 and previous years.

For many vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs), assessment (both internal and external) takes place throughout the year. Ofqual put in place a different framework in early autumn that allowed awarding organisations to make changes to qualifications to take account of disruption caused by the pandemic. In some cases, for example, this included remote assessment and invigilation.

Ministers are clear that external exams for many vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs) and other general qualifications cannot take place as planned, and some learners may not be able to complete other forms of assessment due to the disruption caused by the pandemic. February and March written exams will therefore not happen and we will need to have some alternative arrangements in place where this is so. The consultation makes proposals on which VTQ exams from April onwards should not take place.

Fairness will be key here. There is an incredibly wide range of VTQs of different shapes and sizes, using diverse assessment methodologies, and used for different purposes, so there will not be a single solution. The consultation will look at which qualifications will need alternative arrangements and how those arrangements should work.

For some qualifications, such as those that need a practical assessment to show occupational competency, assessments could continue, if public health guidance allows. Many other qualifications are taken to help students progress in a similar way to GCSEs and A levels, and are taken instead of or alongside them. But that doesn’t mean arrangements can or should be the same – they need to fit the qualification in question.

We must also make sure that, whatever the arrangements are, they don’t place unreasonable demands on teachers.

We will be consulting until 29 January. Do let us know what you think.

Simon Lebus
Interim Chief Regulator, Ofqual

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