Exams and guidance – Ofqual answer member questions

The Chartered College of Teaching recently polled members on the publication of exam guidance and the impact on the most disadvantaged students.

Dr Jo Saxton, Ofqual Chief Regulator, reflects on the poll and shares insights for teachers and leaders ahead of exams.

Our poll found that over 60 per cent of members disagree that the advance information about this summer’s exams will mitigate the negative impact of the pandemic on disadvantaged students. What is your response?

First of all, I’m really aware of the varied impact of the pandemic and how challenging it continues to be for students, teachers and support staff. I’ve visited and spoken to heads, teachers and students at schools and colleges across England, and the endurance, dedication and determination shown by students and teachers have been abundantly clear.

We’re dealing with unique circumstances and the starting point for trying to recover is that students deserve the level playing field that exams allow – with all students sitting the same papers at the same time, and their responses anonymised for marking. But it’s only right that with exams returning we give them every reasonable form of support as we reintroduce exams this summer.

And of course, advance information is just one element of a wider package of support for GCSE, AS and A level students in 2022. It plays an important part, but so too do the changes for non-exam assessment and fieldwork, the formulae and equation sheets that exam boards will provide for some exams, and – of course – our approach to grading this summer.

From the outset, advance information has been designed to help all students equally. Its aim is to help focus students’ revision and give them more confidence about what they will face in their exams.

Some respondents were concerned about consistency between subjects.

It is true that the advance information looks different for different subjects, and that there are some differences between exam boards within a subject. I absolutely understand that, at a surface level, this feels like cause for concern. However, the reality is that this is an inevitable consequence of the differences in how each specification is structured and assessed, so we were always going to see that.

For all qualifications, the advance information was derived according to a set of common principles, and the exam boards also took a consistent approach within each subject.

Could the advance information have been published earlier?

We thought really carefully about this, and I know some were very keen for the information to be published sooner. Government policy is that students should cover the curriculum as fully as possible so that they are prepared for the next stage of their education. And so it was important that we allowed sufficient time for teachers to have covered the curriculum as fully as possible. Had we published earlier, then that time would have been cut short.

Some respondents felt that advance information is not enough to address the disruption that students have faced. Could you tell us more about what else is in place to support students this summer?

Clearly, the disruption due to Covid has been significant which is why advance information is part of a wider package of support. So, for instance, in GCSE English literature, history, ancient history and geography there are optional topics or content, which has reduced the amount that students need to learn in these subjects.

Students will be given a formulae sheet in GCSE maths, and a revised equation sheet in GCSE physics and combined science, which will reduce the amount of information that they need to memorise.

There is also increased flexibility in the arrangements for non-exam assessment and fieldwork.

And importantly, this summer’s exams will be graded sensitively compared to a normal exam year, to provide a safety net to those students who might otherwise just miss out on a higher grade. That combination of support is designed to work as a package to mitigate against the disruption that we’ve felt at varying times and degrees. The safety net has many strands to it.

Could you tell us more about how exams will be graded?

The length and breadth of the country, students have told me they want the opportunity to sit their exams and prove what they know and can do. They want that rite of passage after these years of disruption and difficulty. And for our part, we want to make sure that qualifications remain meaningful and genuinely show what students know, understand and can do.

We want to get back to pre-pandemic grading standards – however, given the disruption that students have faced, I don’t think it would be fair to do so in one go. So, rather than going straight back, this year’s results will reflect a staging post between last year’s Teacher Assessed Grades and the last pre-pandemic summer exams in 2019.

This is more generous grading than the last exam year, but marking will take place as normal. As in any exam year, students’ responses will be marked in line with the marking schemes for that paper and specification. When marking is complete, grade boundaries will be set by senior examiners after they have reviewed students’ work, with the exam boards working together to align standards between boards in a subject. One of my key jobs as Chief Regulator is to ensure it is no easier or harder to achieve a grade with one board than another. What is different this year is that the data will be based on an average of 2019 and 2021 results (by subject), which is where the generosity for students comes in.

Year 10 and Year 12 students have also been disrupted – what about them?

Government has been clear that it is fully committed to exams and other assessments going ahead in 2023. While we want to return to the pre-pandemic grading standard, we will be looking very carefully at the summer 2022 outcomes and continue to monitor the impact of the pandemic, as we need to make the right decisions for students.

Ofqual resources

Additional help for students taking exams in summer 2022

Subject-by-subject support for GCSE, AS and A level students in 2022 – overview

Coping with exam pressure – a guide for students

Student guide to exams and formal assessments in 2021 to 2022