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A-Levels 2021: A recap

  • 12 August 2021
  • By Michael Natzler

This blog was written by Michael Natzler, HEPI’s Policy Officer. Michael’s Twitter is @Michael_Natzler.

A record number of students will be starting higher education in a few weeks. There will be more new students than last year, reflecting the increase in the number of 18 year-olds in the population and the use of Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs) instead of exams. Like last year, this was not a normal A-level cycle nor did it end the way it was expected to, with the system of TAGs being announcedpart-way through the year.

HEPI has hosted a number of blogs on school-leaving exams this year, some of which are recapped below.

From one cycle to the next 

In early October 2020, the Department for Education announced exams would go ahead ‘as usual’ in the summer of 2021. In December, this was still the plan, with Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education, confirming that he had ‘every confidence’ that exams would ‘absolutely’ go ahead in the summer of 2021. Dennis Sherwood, who has for a long time highlighted that exam marking is so fuzzy that an AAB at A-level could (in some cases) be an A*A*A or a BBC, argued that even if exams could go ahead, there must be a better way to assess pupils:

For until [exams are reliable], there is, to me, no point in doing exams at all. Not in a few weeks’ time. Not next summer. Not until exams are truly fit-for-purpose. Not until assessments are fully reliable and trustworthy.   

Exams cancelled

Following a short lifting of lockdown for Christmas, the lockdown returned early in 2021 and the announcement that summer exams would not ‘go ahead as normal’ swiftly followed. In the six weeks following this announcement, it was unclear what method would be used to assess pupils, before eventually teacher assessment or the use of Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs) was decided upon in late February. In those six ambiguous weeks, we explored what the best way to assess pupils might be. Dennis Sherwood argued:

For many years, we have all believed that there is a real difference between a grade B and a grade C, between a grade 5 and a grade 6. We now know this to be a myth. So despite the fact that this idea does not appear in Ofqual’s consultation, surely now is an ideal opportunity to bust the myth and to ‘support “innovation” in assessment’.

Keith Geary, a school Governor and former headteacher of two schools, shared his idea of what a fair and transparent system might look like, coining the ‘evidence-of-best-performance’ approach’ which was met with lively discussion in our comments section.

Ultimately, Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs) were chosen as the starting point for students’ grades with some room for adjustment by Ofqual. TAGs drew on marked work and mini exams run within schools and could only cover content which had been taught. We explored whether this method of assessment could be trusted, and, more widely, how public faith in exams and grades might change:

This year’s exam-free process is different [from 2020], 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’.        

Crunch time

Following the submission of TAGs by schools across the country in June, we ran a piece by Neil Renton, Headteacher of Harrogate Grammar School, which outlined the process of establishing, checking and submitting TAGs:

On 18 June we submitted the grades, uploading over 4,000 grades for 285 students at GCSE and 300 students at A-level. We had reviewed approximately 19,000 data points for assessed work and the reasonable judgement’ of each teacher, over a period of three weeks, before uploading the final judgements.  

This year’s A-Level cycle, however, fits into a larger picture and a wider changing relationship between the Government, universities, schools and Ofqual. While the presence of COVID has a tendency to brush aside important issues, they do not go away; they simply rumble on out of the limelight. We shone a light on some of these topics.

The Government opened a consultation on whether Post Qualification Admissions (PQA) is a system that should be adopted in the UK. We explored this in a collection of essays edited by Rachel Hewitt, now Chief Executive of MillionPlus, Association of Modern Universities, which you can read here.  

Meanwhile, Jeremy Yallop examined Ofqual and its role not only in 2021 but in earlier years too. Jeremy Yallop wrote in a blog on the weekend prior to A-level results when asking whether Ofqual can recover:

Ofqual’s objectives to maintain the reliability and consistency of qualifications are set out in law. Nevertheless, it has largely abandoned these objectives in recent months.

A-Level results day 2021 largely turned out how it was predicted to by UCAS in their blog for HEPI and an interesting wide-ranging webinar with Clare Marchant (which you can watch here). While the number of top grades hit record levels and questions around comparability to previous years dominated the headlines, with talk ongoing (at time of writing) about switching to a numeric set of grades, the gap between those educated in private schools and those educated by the state was apparent:

70% of A-level results were A* or A, compared with 39% for comprehensive pupils.

Lee Elliot Major, Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter, and Kieran Tompkins, a 2021 graduate from the same institution, outlined how complex contextual admissions is at Russell Group universities and how admissions could be improved in future years.

Meanwhile, stark gender differences are as apparent in graduate outcomes data as they are in A-Level and admissions data. Last year, Mary Curnock Cook outlined some of those differences, and keep your eyes peeled for the 2021 update (you can sign up at the bottom of this page).  

While grades are decided for this year, the fallout is far from over and the conversation will – and must – go on.

What is the best way to examine pupils and assess applicants for higher education? Should higher education move to a post-qualification admissions model? How can we close the gap between state and privately educated applicants? There are many more questions which need answering. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you would like to write for HEPI.

For more information, please email Michael Natzler, HEPI’s Policy Officer [email protected]

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