Our Research and Policy Officer Erica Holt-White looks at the potential impact of cancelling exams, particularly for disadvantaged students. 

The last two weeks have changed day-to-day life for all of us. For young people, it has meant not only a sudden end to their year at schoolbut many are also having to deal with the impact of their upcoming examinations being cancelled. Exams are a chance for pupils to show all they have learned in their courses, and they are important in determining whether they gain a place in their desired sixth form, college, apprenticeship program or university. But now this has been taken away, and the outcome of many hours of hard work is uncertain.  

Instead of exams, teachers will make a guided assessment of their pupils’ attainmentwhich will be moderated by the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual), using a range of information sources, including previous grades (for example from mock examinations) and assessment materials (like coursework). If students are not happy with their grade, they will be able to appeal and sit an exam as soon as it is feasible to do so or wait until the summer 2021 exam series.  

The Sutton Trust welcomes the Government’s decision not to decide final grades based on predicted grades alone, as our research has shown they are more often than not inaccurate, and often underpredict the performance of high-attaining disadvantaged studentsHowever, there are still challenges for the new system 

Previous research has shown that teacher assessments can underestimate the abilities of disadvantaged students. For example, when headteacher panels assess borderline cases in the 11+ examthey admit lower rates of Free School Meal (FSM) pupils than expected considering their SATs results. Teachers are also less likely to judge low-income students as having above average ability in reading or in maths, even when their previous test scores indicate as such 

Everyone has biases, and this is not being done consciously by teachers, but it is important to keep in mind these issues when designing any system which uses teacher assessment. Additionally, teachers will have much less information to base their assessment on than they will have had in previous years, as reforms to A-levels particularly has led to a reduction in coursework. 

Ofqual will also have an important role in validating the grades set by teachers; if they anchor grades to a school’s prior attainment, they must not punish those with high levels of value added, and they must recognise the potential for a student to be a late bloomer (for example, after completing an outreach program), capable of a better grade than their prior attainment might indicate. Such progress should not go unrewarded by the assessment system. 

There may also be challenges for those wishing to appeal their marks or re-sit examinations. The existing exam appeals system can be difficult to navigate and there is a cost to any appealIf these barriers are not removed at a time when appeals are likely, they may prevent disadvantaged students from making an appeal and widen inequalities within the system between studentsIt would be good to see more clarity on whether there will be a cost for appeals this year and, if there are fees, that support is made available for those who need it. Support will also be needed for all students to help them navigate the appeal systems.  

Unequal access to university has persisted long before the current crisisbut it is important to ensure that this access gap is not exacerbated this year. The Trust have frequently championed contextual admissions in the past, and the same principles should be applied by universities when deciding whether to accept students this year Universities should consider the ways in which the temporary grade allocation system may disadvantage those from lower income backgrounds, and give students just missing out on their offer grades additional leeway than they may have otherwise done, to reflect this unprecedented situation.  

Another concern is that with exams cancelled, universities may make greater use of unconditional offers. But if offered an unconditional place, students may feel pressured to make a rash decision and choose an institution which isn’t right for them, rather than wait for their grades to come through. The Office for Students have reacted to this quickly, calling on providers to stop the use of unconditional offers for the next two weeks. This is particularly important for disadvantaged students as previous research shows applicants from areas with historically low rates of participation in higher education are more likely to receive unconditional offers (although this is largely explained by the institutions they are applying to being more likely to give this type of offer), so they may be more vulnerable to any increase in the use of this practice.  

It is clear that the impact of the current public health crisis is substantial across many areas of our lives. But it is vital that, to prevent the opportunity gap from widening, disadvantaged students are able to get the grades that they deserve, to ensure they have equal opportunities as they get on in life. 


Media enquiries

If you're a journalist with a question about our work, get in touch with Sam or Rocky on 0204 536 4642. This number is also monitored out of hours.

E: [email protected] T: 020 7802 1660

Keep up to date with the latest news