Exam results must return to normal so qualifications ‘carry credibility’ – Gibb

There is an ‘expectation’ exam aids given to students in some GCSE subjects this summer will not be in place next year, the schools minister said.

Exam results in England need to return to pre-pandemic levels this year to ensure GCSE and A-levels carry “weight and credibility” with employers, universities and colleges, the schools minister has said.

Nick Gibb said there is an “expectation” that exam aids in some GCSE subjects – which were used this summer to acknowledge pandemic disruption to learning – will not be offered to students next year.

His comments come after Covid-19 led to an increase in top GCSE, AS and A-level grades in 2020 and 2021, with results based on teacher assessments instead of exams.

England’s exams regulator Ofqual has said this year’s national results will be lower than last year, but they are expected to be similar to those before the pandemic.

Pupils in England have faced some level of disruption to their schooling due to Covid-19, as well as a series of teacher strikes by members of the National Education Union (NEU) since February this year.

In an interview with the PA news agency ahead of students receiving their results, Mr Gibb said: “It is important to get back to normal because we want these qualifications to continue to carry the weight and credibility both with employers and with universities and colleges that they need to have.”

He said: “Every year that elapses is a year away from the disruption caused by the pandemic and there are more years that those young people have had in school full time.”

But Mr Gibb added that there will be an “additional protection” this year where grade boundaries will be altered if senior examiners find evidence nationally of a drop in standards compared with 2019.

He told PA: “A typical student in 2019 – given the same level of ability, the same level of diligence – the likelihood is that same student would get the same grades in 2023 as they would have done in 2019.”

This summer, GCSE students in England who took mathematics, physics and combined science were given formulae and equation sheets in exams to mitigate the potential loss of learning during Covid-19.

When asked whether the exam aids will no longer be offered to students in England next year, Mr Gibb told PA “that will be the expectation” but the final decision will be taken “in due course”.

He added that the exam aids were intended as “a temporary expedient” for this year.

“The grading is back to 2019 levels and we expect the system to be back fully in the following year,” the minister said.

Thousands of students who had taken vocational technical qualifications (VTQ) were left in limbo last summer after nearly 21,000 grades from awarding bodies Pearson and OCR were delayed or had errors.

Asked whether he could rule out delays to VTQ results this year, Mr Gibb said: “You can’t predict anything about exam results – whether it’s the academic side or the vocational side – but certainly we have done everything, the regulator has done everything they can to make sure that there aren’t those delays because they were unacceptable last year and we don’t want to see it happening again this year.”

Dr Jo Saxton, the chief regulator of Ofqual, which launched an action plan last year to help make sure students receive their VTQ results on time this August, said: “I expect the number of late results will be significantly lower than last year because of the actions we’ve taken.”

She added: “With 16 million GCSE, AS and A-level scripts now in the final stages of marking, nationally we are expecting results to be similar to before the pandemic.

“Grade protections have been built in to reflect that performance is likely to be a little weaker because of the disruption that students experienced.

“This return to normal is an important milestone, and while overall results will be lower than last year, students can have confidence that their grades will reflect what they know and understand and will help them make the right choice about their next step, whether that’s further study or moving into the world of work.”

Sarah Hannafin, head of policy for school leaders’ union the NAHT, said: “Employers, universities and colleges are more than capable of understanding changes to approaches in grading and making appropriate changes to their own processes – as we saw when exams were cancelled.

“A narrow focus on returning to pre-pandemic levels misses opportunities to reflect, review and improve on what we had before.”

The NAHT union believes the formulae sheets for GCSE mathematics and the equation sheets for GCSE physics and combined science “should be kept in place for future exam series,” she added.

On possible plans to remove exam aids for students, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “While we understand the appetite to fully return to normal from next year onwards, there are many future exam cohorts that have had part of their education disrupted by the pandemic and it’s important this is recognised when making decisions in future years.”

England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland offered different levels of support to students who took exams this year, and the approaches to grading this year are set to vary.

In both Wales and Northern Ireland, exam regulators have said they do not plan to return to pre-pandemic grading until 2024.

Meanwhile in Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) has said it plans to take “a sensitive approach” to grading this year to take into account the ongoing impact of the pandemic on education.

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