Ofqual, the DfE and this summer’s exam season – what questions remain?

Following the Ofqual consultation on this year’s exam series, Alex Galvin, Senior Education Lead at SSAT, outlines what we know so far and identifies areas requiring further clarity

The consultation responses are now in and we await further news about the practicalities of how things will work this summer. Students, parents and teachers are understandably keen to know how assessment will take place.

Here are the areas to watch over the coming weeks. We’ll keep you updated as soon as we get any more details.

How will special consideration be managed?

Special consideration is obviously a particularly thorny issue this year. We all know that many students have been disadvantaged due to circumstances beyond their control – whether that is illness, the need to self-isolate, access to technology or family circumstances. We also know that the situation has varied hugely from school to school and region to region in terms of school closures and staff absence. To what extent centres will be able to make allowances for these difficulties remains unclear.

What basis will grades be awarded on?

The Ofqual consultation states “we do not believe that teachers should be asked to decide the grade a student might have achieved had the pandemic not occurred” and “we do not propose to ask teachers what grade a student might have received if they had been able to take their exams.” Instead, the suggestion is that grades reflect student’s current performance. This raises questions about whether teachers will be permitted to take a longer-term holistic view, or whether the preference will be for recent assessment data.

Timelines for assessment/moderation/award of results

It looks likely that the assessment period will be May/June as usual, but that results may be issued earlier, in July, to allow time for appeals. It is suggested that there might be a gap between A-level results being issued and university places being confirmed, which should avoid some of the difficulties that occurred last year. The main issue here is going to be tight timelines for assessment and moderation in centres. It is also unclear whether ‘assessment’ in this context refers to the use of exam board papers and/or the process of teacher assessments.

Will exam boards provide papers and how will they work?

It is proposed that exam boards will provide papers to support with assessment and achieving consistency between schools. These were previously referred to as ‘short papers’, the Ofqual consultation refers to them more broadly as exam board papers. Lots of questions here – we don’t know how content would be decided and whether there might be some kind of ‘pick and mix’ elements to enable teachers to create a paper that works for their students. We also don’t yet know whether they would be compulsory or optional, although it seems likely that they would be compulsory if they are used.

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It is not clear what weight they would carry, but the suggestion is that they would be used in conjunction with other forms of assessment to determine a final grade.

It is proposed that these papers would be marked by teachers – which suggests there would be a significant impact on the workload of teachers with exam groups, particularly given the tight timescales that have been suggested.

If papers are not issued by exam boards, it is not clear what assessments students would be undertaking in the May/June window, whether schools would be required to set a paper or whether a broader form of teacher assessment would be used.

How will subjects that usually have non-exam assessments work?

There are specific questions that relate to subjects which usually have non-exam assessments – for example assessed portfolios in art, spoken language in English and practicals in A-level sciences. It looks likely that these assessments will continue to form part of the overall judgement of students’ performance and will be assessed by teachers with no external moderation. However, it is not yet clear whether work that has only been partially completed for any reason will be permissible.

What evidence can be used to inform the award of grades?

There is a suggestion that only more recent assessments might be included, or that a student’s more recent work might receive greater weighting. We are waiting to hear whether teachers will only be able to draw on evidence from a given time period and whether performance in the previous key stage might be considered. As above, it is also not yet clear whether partially completed assessments can be considered as evidence.

Where will assessments be taken?

Obviously, we don’t yet know what the situation will be by the likely assessment window in May/June. While everyone will hope that students will be back in school by then, there is clearly a possibility that at least some students would be sitting assessments from home. This prompts numerous considerations around fairness and questions about the practicalities of administering exams.

How will the exam boards work with schools?

It is proposed that exam boards will have a key role in this process – providing guidance to schools on assessment practice and moderation and then quality assuring the assessment processes that centres deliver. It is not clear yet how these processes would work – whether exam boards would set a recommended quality assurance process for all centres to follow and whether the exam boards would be reviewing practice at whole school, department and student level. There is a suggestion that if an exam board has a concern about assessment standards in a centre, that students’ grades would be withheld while this was resolved, but it is not clear how this would work in practice.

What quality assurance processes will schools be required to undertake?

It is not clear whether exam boards will set a process for all schools to follow or whether they will issue guidance but allow schools to set their own procedures. If the latter, there is a suggestion that exam boards will review the processes schools are using to confirm that they meet expected standards. Whatever happens, it is likely that these processes will be similar to those used already in many schools. We know that schools are already experienced at moderating grades at department and whole-school level – and did this very efficiently at short notice last year.

How will the appeals process work?

It has been stressed that all students will have the right to appeal their grade. However, it is not clear yet how this process will work. The suggestion is that appeals are initially referred to the school, but the possibility of them being directed to the exam board is also suggested as an option. Ofqual are recommending that appeals would be directed to “a competent person” – this might be a member of staff in the school who was not directly involved in the original assessment or a colleague in another school.

How will private candidates be assessed?

Four possible approaches are suggested for private candidates, for example students who are educated at home. They could sit any papers provided to all schools by exam boards, they could undertake normal exams either this summer or in the autumn or schools could be asked to assess their work and provide a grade. On this basis it looks most likely that private candidates will sit an exam in some format, but this is to be confirmed.

What happens next?

Ofqual have said that they want to announce the outcomes of the consultation quickly, so we should see answers to these questions in the next few weeks. Establishing a workable plan that is fair to all students is a difficult challenge. Students, teachers and parents all urgently need clarity on how this year’s assessments are going to work. If formal assessments will be required in May/June, teachers need time to review curriculum plans and support students who may have missed key content.

We will do our best to keep you informed as we get further information. Do let us know if you have any questions.

Join us at an upcoming SSAT member-exclusive policy webinar

Senior Education Leads, Alex Galvin and Sylvia King, will be running a webinar for members of the SSAT network on 10 February where they will share the latest policy developments and answer your questions.

Book now

Not a member: Learn more about becoming part of the SSAT network.

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