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Can we trust this year’s exam results?

  • 6 March 2021
  • By Dennis Sherwood

Thanks to Dennis Sherwood for contributing this blog. Dennis has been writing about A levels on the HEPI from long before 2020. You can find Dennis on Twitter @noookophile.

On 18 March 2020, Boris Johnson announced the cancellation of the summer 2020 school exams. A few days later, on 21 March, HEPI published a blog entitled ‘Trusting teachers is the best way to deliver this year’s exam results – and those in future years?’.

That blog drew inspiration from Gavin Williamson’s statement of 20 March 2020, that:

The exam boards will be asking teachers, who know their students well, to submit their judgement about the grade that they believe the student would have received if exams had gone ahead.

Alas, my initial optimism was misguided. As we now know, teachers were not trusted but were second-guessed by the now-notorious algorithm, and their judgements ignored – until public outrage exploded.

This year’s exam-free process is different, with not only no algorithm, but also, apparently, no constraints to limit grade inflation. And ‘trusting teachers’ is explicitly the central theme: as Gavin Williamson said at the Downing Street press conference on 24 February, ‘We’re putting our trust firmly in the hands of teachers… there will be no algorithms whatsoever’.

This year’s grades will therefore be determined totally by teacher assessment, subject to external quality assurance by the exam boards that those assessments are ‘a reasonable exercise of academic judgement’. However, if anything goes wrong, it is the teachers – not the Government, not Ofqual, not the exam boards – who will take the flak. From the Government’s perspective, that could indeed be phrased as ‘we’re putting our trust firmly in the hands of teachers’, but to me, where the Government might put their trust misses the key point: whom the Government may or may not trust is ‘interesting’, but it’s whether the public – students, teachers, parents, admissions officers, employers – trust the grades that’s important.

Yes, it would be nice if those grades were to be widely trusted. But I fear that the Government, while declaring their undying and unbounded trust in teachers, have adopted policies that have put public trust in teachers in jeopardy.

‘The fairest way’

For months, every politician and senior official has been saying ‘exams are the fairest way of judging student performance’. Fairest way. Fairest way. Drumming the message time and again.

So here is today’s logic exam:

  • ‘Exams are the fairest way.’
  • Therefore any other way is at worst, unfair; at best, less fair.
  • Teacher assessment is another way.
  • Therefore teacher assessment is at worst unfair; at best, less fair.
  • Especially when teachers have different points of view, apply different criteria and make different judgements.
  • Especially when students have had different opportunities for learning and vastly different experiences over the last several months, as caused by the virus.
  • Discuss.

Any student, any parent, who has heard that ‘exams are the fairest way’ must be puzzled that the u-turn to teacher assessment has in fact happened; disappointed that this year’s process has, officially, doubtful fairness; concerned that ‘another student’ might be treated differently, and therefore unfairly advantaged over ‘me’; worried that ‘I’ might be a victim. The ‘fairest way’ mantra has undermined public trust in teacher assessment, and I don’t see, or hear, any initiatives to rebuild that trust, other than the pitiful bleating of the Secretary of State.

But if the Government now tries to persuade us that ‘teacher assessments are the fairest way’, that will be interpreted as yet another u-turn. Given the Government’s track record for rotation, this would surely be brushed aside; a much more significant problem is that any admission that ‘teacher assessments are the fairest way’ makes it more difficult to re-instate exams as the ‘fairest way’ when exams will, at some time, return. The Government, presumably, does not wish to undermine exams, and so that problem is resolved by undermining teachers instead.

Oh dear. When will the penny drop that both exams and teacher assessment have an important, valuable and trusted role to play, with teacher assessment being fully trusted this year, and looking forward to a reformed system in the future in which both exams and teacher assessment each play a substantial and appropriate role?

This year’s appeals

Having undermined trust in teacher assessment from the outset, a safety net has been offered by confirming that ‘A student unhappy with their grade would submit an appeal to the school or college…’, with the possibility of  escalation to the exam board, who will confirm the teacher’s originally-awarded grade if they consider that it represents a ‘reasonable exercise of academic judgement’.

If public trust in teachers is low, there could be a very large number of appeals – especially since there are indications that appeals will be free, so appellants willing to take the risk of a downgrade have nothing to lose. Indeed, a surge in appeals appears to have been anticipated by the decision to publish the results earlier than has been the case in the past:

to allow more time for post results processes, including both appeals and transition activities for students moving between phases of education.

The pressure on the appeals process can of course be reduced if there are fewer appeals. Accordingly, on page 16 of Ofqual’s ‘Consultation Decisions’ document, we read:

To reduce the number of errors made and, in turn the volume of appeals, centres will be expected to tell their students the evidence on which their grades will be based, before the grades are submitted to exam boards. This will allow issues associated with, for example, absence, illness or reasonable adjustments to be identified and resolved before grades are submitted.

I find this statement troubling.

Will this be misinterpreted as saying ‘centres will be expected to tell their students their grades’, before those grades are submitted, let alone awarded? I know it doesn’t say that, but will people notice the subtle difference between the rather complex ‘tell their students about the process that will be used to determine their grades, and the nature of the evidence that will be considered’ and the much simpler ‘tell their students their grades’? – especially in the light of headlines such as ‘Let schools tell pupils their teacher assessment grades before submission, says exam board’.

Will teachers have to unwind this misunderstanding? When students, parents and carers come to them to say, ‘The rules are that you have to tell me my grades, now’, teachers will be faced with responding, ‘Well, that’s not quite what the rules really say…’ – a conversation which could well be difficult.

And when the teacher is through all that, the next demand, ‘OK. So how are you determining my grades?’, is not so easy either. Suppose the teacher replies, quite honestly, ‘We are taking into consideration [this coursework], [that test]…’. Inevitably, this will result in any number of ripostes from ‘but that’s not fair because I was not feeling well that day’ to ‘but my cousin’s school down the road is taking [whatever] into account too, so why aren’t you?’.

Avoiding confrontation

That’s all uncomfortable, so teachers, quite understandably, will seek to avoid such confrontations. So it’s in every school’s interests to define a local protocol, specifying in detail the elements of evidence to be considered, the weighting assigned to each and the rules by which the result is mapped onto a grade. The possibility, if not likelihood, that different schools will adopt different protocols is not any one school’s problem, for as long as a school complies with its own protocol in the same way for all students, the school should be ‘safe’. I hesitate to describe this as an ‘algorithm’, but that’s what I think it is; nor will I make (too much) of a meal about the fact that last year Ofqual directly refused to divulge the details of their algorithm, despite being told to do so by the Select Committee in their report of 11 July 2020, yet this year Ofqual are demanding that every school does exactly that.

Schools might also spot that the number of appeals they will have to deal with might be reduced by awarding grades likely to please. At A level, the allure of matching grades to UCAS predictions must be strong. UCAS predictions are already there, they have been taken into consideration in the appropriate admissions processes, and submitting them as this year’s actual grades pre-empts that most awkward question ‘why is the grade you awarded lower than the UCAS grade you predicted?’ And since UCAS guidance states that ‘predicted grades … should be aspirational but achievable’, that ‘but achievable’  should ensure that the school is safe from any challenge by an exam board as regards the school’s ‘reasonable exercise of academic judgement’.

For GCSE, there is no handy equivalent of UCAS predictions, so the temptation here is to bid up – a temptation fuelled by that rumour about Nearby High’s intention to do just that, let alone memories of last year, when schools that played by the perceived ‘rules’ lost out to those who didn’t.

If I were a teacher, I would defend my ‘reasonable academic judgement’ by reminding any external quality assurer that, in her evidence to the Select Committee Hearing on 2 September 2020, Ofqual’s then Acting Chief Regulator, Dame Glenys Stacey, acknowledged that exam grades are ‘reliable to one grade either way’: ‘So who are you to quibble over whether my student merits a 7 rather than the 8 that I judge to be fair?’ With, in reserve, ‘According to UCAS guidance, A level predicted grades should be aspirational but achievable. The school applied that principle to this year’s A levels, so, for fairness, the same principle must be applied to GCSEs too.’ Will an exam board, who quite possibly has an eye on next year’s exam income, really want to have a big fight with its customer? And do exam boards have the capacity to challenge 5 million GCSE grade submissions?

Back to trust

Overall, this year’s process has placed teachers directly, and alone, in the appeals firing line, so building-in gold-standard incentives for grade inflation – for A level grades to match UCAS predictions, for GCSE to be (at least) one grade up. That is likely to keep many people happy, and so avoid the nightmare of a multitude of long-disputed, acrimonious appeals. But that is not a universal ‘good’: the university admissions process will once again be thrown into turmoil and even the individual awarded those A*s might suffer real anguish when struggling to cope with a programme for which he or she is ill-qualified to pursue.

The ideal is for grades to be reliable and trustworthy, truly reflecting a student’s capabilities. And teachers are in a strong position to exercise the required judgement to do just that – they really do know their students best. But they must act with integrity and be trusted by students, parents, carers, admissions officers and employers to have done so.

So what are the Government, Ofqual and the exam boards actively doing to build that trust? What can teachers and schools do locally to convince students, parents and carers that they can indeed be trusted? What can organisations such as ASCL, NAHT, HMC, the Sixth Form Colleges Association, the Association of Colleges, NEU and the rest do to help?

If this year’s process turns out to be fraught, with ‘everyone’s a winner’ grades or embattled teachers overwhelmed by appeals, that will be bad. But perhaps not all bad, for it might fuel the fire for the fundamental reform – ensuring that exam grades are sensibly distributed as well as fully reliable and trustworthy, rebalancing the relative importance of exam results and holistic assessment in a student’s final award, scrapping GCSE, making the curriculum truly relevant and all the rest. Why, though, should a crisis be the driver of change? These changes should take place anyway and as a consequence of the success of this year’s process, not its failure. So the most important priority is that this year’s process works; that this year’s exam candidates are not only treated fairly, but trust they have been treated fairly too.

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  1. Ruth Arnold says:

    Thank you for this really important and thoughtful blog.

    Another vital angle to trust is the pupil themselves. Do they trust and have confidence in themselves? Who will celebrate that?

    Having watched my 15 year old slog through homeschooling with chronic migraine, I want to focus on that… whatever is in the envelope.

    I am very grateful to teachers and adults who have shown an interest and belief in pupils, communicating their confidence that they will come through this difficult time and be able to pursue the social, educational and career opportunities they hope for. I also know that will need to continue so they can make up gaps and this period is then a bumpy detour not a road to nowhere.

    A year is a really long time in the life of a teenager and lots of rights of passage and recognition of their emerging confidence and achievements have been postponed or disappeared.

    In the end it is they who should be at the centre of our educational thinking and finding legitimate ways for pupils to regain confidence and trust in themselves, and to celebrate that, really matters too.

    Years after current politics is a political footnote, young people will remember how we supported and encouraged them in dealing with a giant setback and challenge that was beyond their control but didn’t let it stop them thriving. Teachers and families who genuinely communicate this are sharing one of the most important lessons of all, even if it isn’t on the curriculum.

  2. Helen Williams says:

    My daughter was awarded an unexpected C in her Math A level last year, despite predominant A grades in exams in the 3 years prior. She needed that A for her degree application.

    The appeals process was essentially rigid, and information on data used by exam board for decisions is not shared .
    She sat the exam October 2020 and earned her A grade . This was not an easy achievement as it was an unsupported period of learning and revising.

    To summarise : The teachers are in an impossible position and will foot the blame for unhappy students/parents. The appeals are obstructive and difficult, and create an unpleasant position for student and school.
    Stress on students is high .
    As pandemics may be ongoing for a few years, change in assessments is needed for the next few years as this process is abysmal.

  3. Ruth, Helen – many thanks for these contributions: personal stories are so much more vivid than detached generalisations.

    The need for reform is pressing, but those who hold the power are deeply entrenched. So the more pressure that can be brought to bear, the better, as last summer’s experience bears witness.

    There is little that individuals can do by themselves; collective voices are much stronger – such as the voices of an increasing number of lobby groups that are now emerging, lobby groups supported by influential organisations and some prominent people.

    There is a link to Rethinking Assessment,, in the blog , and ASCL are becoming increasingly vociferous, especially as regards GCSE ( Also, Pearson are conducting a consultation on “The Future of Assessment”, which is open until 31 March –

  4. Kevin Childs says:

    Our Son Aaron received mostly 9’s in his GCSE’s, was predicted A* A’s for his Alvls and went through the Oxbridge process.
    His subjects Maths, Further Maths, Physics, we have an Email from his Headmaster acknowledging at the start of year 2 “the picture presented by these grades does suggest that the team felt, that Aaron was on target to achieve the A grades”.
    He then had a period of illness, college closed due to lock down, and he was unable to catch up, or improve on mocks either not taken or taken when unwell.
    He received CDE grades, the lowest grades he’d ever received in his life at any school or college, these were subsequently up graded to BCD, (the second lowest.
    The college let him “resit the year” even though the pervious year wasn’t completed, (resit is just my bug bear).
    Took Autumn exam series Maths and Further Maths with no support and 6 months no teaching received A,B. up from the original D,E given
    He was using Autumn series as a practice, as he said “to be exam ready in the summer”.
    Unfortunately no summer exams
    His and our worry now will the educators who gave him the D, E last year be able this year in all honestly give him the A* A’s he needs to attend the Universities he lost place’s for last September.
    Parents/Guardians who are reading this care and support and will be fighting for their young adults, There are plenty of young adults who don’t get support, I worry for those young people who’s life chances have been effected, and this year cohort.
    Its not the start I would of wanted to adulthood

  5. Lee Baker says:

    My child ucas was ACC. His CAGs CDD. He is not a consistent student but would have worked hard for the exams. He needs CC for his career. It really concerns me as to how he will be fairly assessed this summer. Will the school accept evidence from his private tutor? Will they accept evidence of tests/essays he has done at home for the tutor? It is an impossible task for the school. The private students have been completely forgotten.

  6. Jacs says:

    So much to think about Dennis. Particularly this statement “ According to UCAS guidance, A level predicted grades should be aspirational but achievable.”

    Why were some 2020 students denied their UCAS grades (and futures) if these grades are achievable, while some students were allowed to keep grades inflated by the algorithm? Grades awarded by virtue of historical performance of a centre rather than personal ability created much of the grade inflation. In 2020 teachers spoke of being appalled at having to downgrade students where historical data wouldn’t allow them to give grades in line with actual ability and Gavin Williamson denied these schools the opportunity to resubmit these grades during his questioning by the Education Committee hearing in Sept 2020 saying those schools were simply “more strict”. Did GW not understand what actually happened last year? The fact that schools are not limited by historical data this year suggests he has learned something, but it seems at the expense of a few and I don’t understand why these few students still haven’t been helped and are deprived of fairness.

    [Like Helen, Ruth, Lee and Kevin commenting above my daughter s UCAS was AAB, but awarded BBC. Her schools process to decide was not exactly holistic or based on teachers judgement of her ability: GCSE grades, ALIS, mocks, Lower 6 assignments (all given collectively more weighting than Upper Sixth assignments ) were used in a statistical formula to create rank orders. Uni places lost, Retakes planned and cancelled, focus energy and confidence dwindling.]

    We are all mentally exhausted and astounded at the Governments complicit unwillingness to help these students.I don’t understand what their reason is for not putting this right?

  7. Liz says:

    Your point that UCAS grades are achievable even when aspirational means they are more reliable than the grades inflated by the algorithm.

    They are also better than the actual achievements of students then being knocked down by some schools during their need to not over inflate a deserving bright cohort

  8. Liz says:

    Thank you so much Jacs for your comments above. May I second what you have said on behalf of so many others too.

    Many thanks to Dennis, as always.

  9. Karen Simister says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece and i concur with all of the comments , a child who has now been shown to have SAR data that she was a B but due to the school moderating a bright year to historical data was dropped to a C and lost her uni course and place.
    Every time i hear Gavin Williamson say no child will be disadvantaged i feel so angry that last years forgotten and undercagged have been completely disadvantaged and with a child now going through GCSEs I can see nothing has changed.
    We really need last years decisions to be rectified and understood before we drive headlong into the same wall again.

  10. Karen says:

    I concur with everything said above. My daughters SAR data revealed she should have received at least a B but was downgraded to a C due to the school moderating following the threats from Ofqual that schools needed to stick to historical data curves. This penalised a bright year of children.and prevented my daughter taking up her uni and course choice. Every time i hear Gavin Williamson say no child will be disadvantaged I feel so angry , he is deluded and has no rear view mirror view of the devastation ihis judgement has created. I have a child taking aGCSEs this year and there is no evidence that anything has or will change except the problem has been delegated to teachers to resolve the avalanche of appeals they will undoubtable receive

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