Students should sit rigorous back-up assessments in case their exams are cancelled, according to a report by the Education Policy Institute
Students should sit rigorous back-up assessments in case their exams are cancelled, according to a report by the Education Policy Institute © Keith Morris/Alamy

The UK government should allow grade inflation in GCSEs and A-levels next summer to offset months of learning lost to the pandemic, a leading think-tank has said, as ministers come under mounting pressure to ensure school pupils sitting school exams in England are treated fairly.

Students should also sit rigorous back-up assessments in case their exams are cancelled, according to a report by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) published on Monday. If exams go ahead, they should offer a broader range of questions, the think-tank recommended.

Ministers maintain that exams will take place in England next summer, despite continued disruption to education as the country entered a second lockdown last week.

Although schools remain open, teachers have warned of unfairness for those sitting national exams as some pupils do not have access to full education provision. The virus has forced partial closures across the country, pushing attendance rates down as low as 86 per cent.

Last month, the government announced GCSEs and A-levels would be delayed by three weeks to give students more time to prepare, and Ofqual, England’s exams regulator, is reviewing possible measures to ensure children are fairly assessed.

Glenys Stacey, the regulator’s interim head, signalled that grade inflation was one option when she told the government last week that the body was considering setting “performance standards more generously” in acknowledgment of the “baleful impact” of coronavirus.

In a letter to Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, she said the regulator was “looking at” steps to make the exams a “less daunting prospect” while ensuring they were “a fair test of knowledge and understanding”. 

Ministers want to avoid a repeat of this summer’s fiasco, when GCSEs and A-levels were cancelled and the government was forced to scrap a planned system of algorithmically calculated marks — introduced to prevent grade inflation — after admitting it was unfair.

Students were instead awarded teacher-assessed grades that were much higher than the average in previous years, putting pupils sitting exams next summer at a disadvantage.

Natalie Perera, executive director of EPI, said moderators should take this into account when they decided grade boundaries relative to previous years, and should pin them between 2019 and 2020.

“They will need to decide what their comparison year is. If it’s 2019, the pre-Covid results, it would be unfair to this year’s cohort because grades were so much higher in 2020,” she said. 

“This is an extraordinary year and we need to prioritise fairness to pupils so they can progress to the next stage.”

The think-tank also recommended that the government run rigorous assessments early next year instead of mock exams that would provide “contingency grades”, and space out final assessments so that isolating pupils are more likely to be able to sit at least one. 

It echoed the recommendations of teacher unions in calling for pupils to be given more choice of questions in final exam papers, so they have a better chance of answering on content they have covered. 

The National Association of Head Teachers union said it supported the call for some grade inflation and greater choice of questions. 

But its general secretary, Paul Whiteman, said more rigorous assessments were “not the right contingency plan” and would put unreasonable pressure on teachers.

“Much more needs to be done to take into account significantly different levels of disruption so that students can have confidence that the grades they are awarded in 2021 are fair,” he said. 

The Department for Education said: “Exams are the fairest way of judging a student’s performance, which is why they will go ahead next year, underpinned by contingency measures developed in partnership with the sector.

 “Over the coming weeks, we will jointly identify any risks to exams and the measures needed to address potential disruption, with fairness for students continuing to be our priority.”

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