Call to relax exam grade boundaries in England amid coronavirus crisis

Teachers’ leaders in England have called for exam grade boundaries to be relaxed for GCSEs and A-levels this summer to ensure pupils are not unfairly disadvantaged by the coronavirus crisis.

Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), told MPs on the Commons education committee that the qualifications regulator, Ofqual, should consider relaxing the boundaries so more pupils receive higher grades.

“Where there is doubt, somebody should move up a grade mark rather than moving down a grade,” he said, “and that will mean exams are regarded as not having the same rigour as the previous exam series, but I don’t see how else we’re going to get through this.”

Following the cancellation of summer exams, which have been replaced by predicted grades based on teacher assessment, there are fears that some groups, including black and minority ethnic pupils, may be penalised unintentionally and will not receive the results they deserve.

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There are also concerns that exam boards and Ofqual will be inundated with appeals once results are published this summer, and that disadvantaged pupils are less likely to access the appeals system.

Lee Elliot Major, a professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, told MPs that this year’s results should be closely monitored to assess the impact on poorer pupils. “I think the worry is that unintentionally teachers will underestimate, sometimes, the academic potential of poorer pupils, potentially those from black backgrounds, and potentially boys as well.”

He said students who leave their revision until the last minute – often boys – and summer-born children were also likely to lose out in a grading system based on teacher assessment. And he suggested universities may need to consider if they should lower their offer to disadvantaged applicants who have faced particularly difficult circumstances during the crisis.

Zubaida Haque, the interim director of racial equality thinktank the Runnymede Trust, told MPs that the Department for Education had not responded to three letters from the trust calling for the government to ensure BAME pupils were not disadvantaged.

MPs were also told there was a “tsunami of anxiety” facing students preparing to sit their exams next summer, having missed so much of the curriculum this year, and continuing uncertainty about what school will look like from next September.

The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, told the Commons on Tuesday exams would go ahead in 2021, but the government has not provided details of any adjustments to take into account the months of disruption to schools and learning since lockdown began in March.

Secondary schools in England have been asked to provide some face-to-face support for pupils in years 10 and 12 from 15 June, but only 25% of pupils can attend at any one time in order to observe physical distancing rules. MPs were told the government may have to introduce a mixture of core exams and teacher assessment for next summer’s exams.

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Sally Collier, Ofqual’s chief regulator, told MPs that schools and teachers needed to know what the plans were for exams in 2021 as a matter of urgency. “Schools and teachers, they need to know very quickly, and exam boards, before the summer break ideally, as to what’s going to happen in September.”

A consultation process on plans for next year’s exams will start in the coming weeks. “We do need to get on with this. I can’t promise that there will be a very long consultation, but we will give the maximum amount of time possible.”

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