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WEEKEND READING: A*++ for Ofqual and the SQA: this year’s school exam grades could well be the fairest ever

  • 4 April 2020

This blog on the new announcement about this summer’s public exams has been written by Dennis Sherwood, an independent consultant. He has previously produced much of HEPI’s past output on A-Levels, including 1 school exam grade in 4 is wrong. Does this matter? and Trusting teachers is the best way to deliver this year’s exam results – and those in future years? as well as work for Ofqual.

What a pleasure to write a good news blog! Both Ofqual and the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) have now published their – very similar – statements on how school exam grades will be awarded this summer. I think the guidelines are really good: pragmatic, effective, fair and, most importantly to my mind, trusting teachers

I had feared the process might be heavily formulaic and algorithmic, with schools being asked to submit marks from mock exams, SATs scores, photocopies of school reports, whatever, and then some great-machine-in-the-sky would say ‘grade B’. But – thankfully – this is not the case. 

Rather, schools are asked to submit, for each student, a ‘centre assessment grade’ that:

 should be a holistic professional judgement, balancing the different sources of evidence. Teachers and heads of department will have a good understanding of their students’ performance and how they compare to other students within the department/subject this year, and in previous years. We want heads of department and teachers to consider each student’s performance over the course of study and make a realistic judgement of the grade each student would have been most likely to get if they had taken their exam(s) in a subject and completed any non-exam assessment this summer.

In addition, schools are being asked to submit a rank order of students within each grade. Why? Because – understandably – Ofqual must prevent overall grade inflation, and to achieve that, Ofqual have reserved the right to change the grade boundaries used by any school, so reallocating students across the grades, but keeping that school’s rank order unchanged. 

The student rank order is therefore fundamental, and, if I were doing it, I would define and agree the rank order first, and then check that rank order against my school’s historic distribution of grades. That should then inform where the grade boundaries should be drawn to be consistent with the school’s past record and, if that makes sense and is fair to each student, that would then be the basis for the submission.

There may, of course, be some outliers, and so those can be examined in detail, and appropriate evidence gathered. If all schools do this conscientiously, when the results of all submissions are aggregated the overall grade distribution should be consistent with previous years, and there will be no grade inflation. Here, then, is an opportunity for those in leadership roles to encourage their colleagues to submit honest and realistic assessments. For if that is the case, and the resulting aggregate grade distribution is very similar to those of recent years, Ofqual are more than likely to let things be, and for a school’s recommended grades to be confirmed.

Teachers are in the best position to determine fair rank orders, subject to one potential problem: clustering. Yes, the very able students can probably be identified relatively easily, and the very weak too. But there are bound to be clusters of students that are hard to separate. Ofqual – it appears – are seeking a rank order with no ‘joint equals’, so that any grade boundaries can be drawn ‘cleanly’. My hunch is that reality is not quite that ‘clean’. So that requires teachers to think very hard. And, once again, if I were doing it, I would seek the advice of my colleagues, and I would double-check the rank order against the grade boundaries determined from the school’s history to try to ensure that any clusters are as distant as possible from the grade boundaries as submitted. That then reduces the likelihood that any changes in the grade boundaries, as determined by Ofqual, might split a cluster arbitrarily, resulting in an unfairness to some of the originally-clustered students.

Yes, Ofqual and the SQA are trusting teachers.

But do students, parents, college admissions officers, and potential employers? That, I think, is a challenge to the schools, and to umbrella organisations such as ASCL, NAHT, HMC and other like bodies, to communicate, very clearly, what they are doing, how they are doing it and why it will deliver fair outcomes. 

It is therefore essential that all stakeholders are convinced, once again using Ofqual’s words, of ‘the integrity of teachers’ judgements’.

This is made somewhat easier by the Department of Education’s wise decision not to hold schools to account for this summer’s outcomes, so relieving the pressure to ‘game’ the school league tables by ‘upping the grades’. But teachers are still potentially susceptible to other pressures, such as ‘the pushy parent’, and various forms of prejudice or bias. Furthermore, all students must feel, and believe, that they have each been treated fairly, not fearing that ‘the teacher has it in for me’ or that ‘[x] is ‘teacher’s pet’, and so is bound to get a high grade’.

So, teachers, you now have every opportunity to show that, yes, you can use your individual and collective professional judgements to deliver assessments that are fair and trusted.

And if you can do this for this summer’s qualifications, does that not set a powerful precedent for the future?

For as I write this, I am watching the 1 pm BBC News, and have just seen an interview with Ofqual’s Chief Regulator, Sally Collier, whose response to a question as to whether this year’s results would be stigmatised as the ‘coronavirus results’ was, ‘No. The results will be like any other year’s.’ 

As indeed could well happen if teacher assessment were to play a (very) significant role in the ‘new normal’.


  1. Clare says:

    I think the problem is less in the teacher assessment. After all – that could be audited against the evidence used to make the decision – and more that the standardizing against a schools previous results make it grossly unfair. My daughters school is on an improvement trajectory. Plus the cohort year is v small – so naturally there are large fluctuations in results yr to yr.

  2. Important points, thank you. And I’m sure many others share your concerns.

    To prevent grade inflation, Ofqual must ensure that the distribution of candidates across the grades is maintained more-or-less constant year-on-year. In the past, this has been achieved by controlling the location of the grade boundaries of whole cohorts at the Exam Boards; this year, the control will have to be exercised at each Centre.

    As you correctly state, rigid adherence to the rule that “this year’s distribution must be the same as last year’s” becomes increasingly unfair to individual candidates as the cohort size decreases – if a Centre had only one candidate in a particular subject last year, then that individual’s grade cannot constrain the grade awarded to this year’s candidate. Furthermore, this rule inevitably chains a Centre to the past, so denying any recognition of a genuine improvement in standards.

    In my view, it’s in all our interests that Ofqual should, over the coming weeks, clamp down on ‘game playing’ and ‘taking advantage’. At the same time, I believe they should consider, wisely, all instances of the points you make, and I am confident that this will indeed happen: I’m sure that Ofqual understand this problem, and, to me, the tone of their guidelines came over as trusting rather than bureaucratic.

    So it’s up to each Centre to gather the evidence to validate that [this] particular candidate merits [this] grade; that, yes, the overall standards have risen. If that evidence is robust, then I believe that Ofqual will listen – and that will enable those historic chains to be broken.

  3. James Seymour says:

    brief comment, it’s clear then that students and parents need to be reassured of this fact -as the HEPI/youthsight research published today 6/4 suggests a lack of confidence in getting a fair grade compared to if they had taken exams as normal.

    This is a great opportunity for teachers as professionals in 2020 to support their learners, backed up by the exam boards to provide a fair and accurate result.

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