The future of public exams

Ofqual has announced that all public exams this summer have been cancelled but grades will be awarded on the basis of other evidence.  The details of how this will be done have not been announced at the time of writing, but we can guess how it might be done.


How are they going to determine A level/IB/Pre-U grades? 

This could be based on two things:


A Teacher predictions

We know that teacher-predicted grades are very unreliable.  16% of predicted A-level grades were correct last year according to UCAS, three-quarters over-predicted.  We know that disadvantaged pupils tend to be under-predicted.   So a rank order will also be needed.

It is not good enough to say ‘well in my school we cannot give rank orders because all the girls get high grades.’  This sort of statement can only be true of a very few schools, and anyway they can give lots of girls a first equal place if they wish.

It is not good enough to say ‘give us your mock exam results’.  Some schools had mock exams back in December and some pupils may have made faster progress than others since then.

So teachers should be encouraged to use ALL the evidence they have to produce their predicted grades and rank orders.


B Statistical formulae

While the teacher predictions will determine the rank order, the grading will be largely determined by three statistics:

*the GCSE performance of individual pupils.  The exam boards know the past correlation between GCSE and A-level results.  No doubt they vary from subject to subject and school to school.  This data can be used to check the veracity of teacher-predicted grades.

*your school’s A-level performance last year.  Again, this data can be used to check the veracity of teacher-predicted grades.

*the comparable outcomes system of grading which Ofqual has been using successfully for some years.  This simply means that NATIONALLY the distribution of grades will be similar, subject by subject, to the grade distribution in 2019.  So, if last year 50% of those taking Greek A-level got an A*, this year 50% will.


How are they going to determine GCSE grades?

The same methods:

A Teacher predictions as above.

B Statistical formulae

*SATs results achieved by individual students

*your school’s GCSE performance last year

*comparable outcomes system


There is an interesting question about gender.  Every teacher knows that girls tend to be more consistent across a course but boys, often lazy during the course, make a late surge as the exam approaches.  How do teachers factor this into their predictions?  How does Ofqual?



Assigning grades will leave some unhappy pupils/schools so there will be a big appeals system and an Autumn exam sitting for those who are not satisfied; the dates for this will not be known for some time.


What about Pre U, the IB and iGCSEs?

These exams are also cancelled and we wait to hear from the relevant exam boards about the arrangements, which will be similar to GCSEs/A-levels.  The IB has a lot of coursework, not all of which will have been completed but which can feed into decisions.


What do pupils do between now and May?

Many schools are saying that the mental health of children cooped up at home demands that they should be encouraged to do something.  If Ofqual decide that predicted grades/rank orders are not needed before late May, schools might well be able to say ‘we are going to carry on setting and marking work to inform our predictions’.  Some schools have already decided to require pupils to take a set of online exam papers to inform their predicted grades.


Would this disadvantage the small number of pupils without internet access at home?  No, because the extra online work would not enhance the grades of those children doing it but it might affect the rank ordering.


Another argument for setting and marking work in April and May is that the appeal process against awarded grades might depend on the case made by the school, which could be based in part on work produced in the next two months.  


When will results be known?



How will this impact university entry? 

Some universities are responding by rushing out unconditional offers.  This is a pity – these students will be getting A-level grades in due course.   Weak students will be admitted to university but will struggle once they are there.

The number of overseas students is bound to fall, so universities are desperate for UK students to replace them.  This will make it easier to get into top tier universities.

The sudden increase in the number of places for UK students at higher-tariff universities will lead to a shortage of students for lower tier universities.  Some may fail.

More universities will institute January degree starts in the hope that they can pick up overseas students once the virus has passed.

If a student Is not satisfied with their assigned A-level grades and does not get a place at their first choice university and decides, therefore, to sit the rescheduled A-levels in the Autumn, will it be too late to go to university this Autumn?   Universities have said that they will show flexibility to ensure that such students who take this option are able to begin their course with a delayed start time.  The problem is that we cannot yet know what the resit dates will be.


Well these are my thoughts today.  All may look different in a week’s time.


Professor Barnaby Lenon

Dean of Education

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