The Sutton Trust has responded to Ofqual and the Department for Education’s consultation on how GCSE, AS and A level grades should be awarded in summer 2021. 

The Trust’s recent reportLearning in Lockdown, found that whilst online learning provision has increased significantly since the last lockdown, the level of disrupted learning is being felt unequally across different groups. Our research found that 40% of middle-class children are undertaking over five hours of schoolwork a day, compared to just 26% of those in working class householdsAs well as differing levels of work, we are also seeing differences in standards, with teachers at the poorest state schools more likely than those in more affluent state schools to report a lower standard of work than expected (55% vs 41%).  

This is compounding on 8 months of disrupted learning in 2020. During the first lockdown, Sutton Trust research found that pupils from independent schools were twice as likely as state school pupils to take part in online lessons every day, and even when schools were open, there was still considerable disruption. Many pupils, ‘bubbles’ and whole year groups needed to self-isolate at various points in the autumn term. Once again the impact was felt unequally: some of the poorest areas in the country were also the most heavily impacted by absences and partial closures. 

Ofqual and the Department’s focus for this year’s grades is to reflect what a student knows, understands and can do. However, whilst this is an important part of what grades are used for, it is not the full picture. Many universities, colleges and employers also use grades to sort students by their future potential – what they are likely to be able to go on to achieve given what they have done previously. Quite often, students will not be using the exact knowledge or skills they have developed during a qualification during their next stages, but their previous grades are used to reflect how well they are likely to perform in these areas in comparison to their peers. 

And while there is inequality in students’ chance to display their potential every year, the disparities this year are of a different magnitude. Clearly, the impacts of the pandemic on learning have been felt very unequallyIn an ideal world, when students have equal access to learning, what a student knows, understands and can do is a reflection of their potential. However, this year more so than any other, that will not be the case. The approach taken by Ofqual and the Department for Education in awarding grades in 2021 must take this into account. Whilst there is no perfect solution given the levels of disruption, there are several steps which can be taken to ensure that disadvantaged students are not worse off this academic year.  

Among the Trust’s key recommendations are: 

  • Externally set assessments should be compulsory to ensure fairness and consistency across schools.
  • The content of these papers should reflect the varied levels of learning loss between schools and pupils by being less knowledge-based where possible and covering a broad range of topics. Content should be flexible so that teachers can decide on what they have been able to teach in the current and past academic year.
  • Clear guidance to teachers on assessing pupils is needed, so that assessments can reflect what students know as well as their potential.
  • External papers should also be externally marked by the exam boards, helping both with the potential for bias and also easing teacher workload. Across all types of assessment taken into account for a student’s grade there should be robust quality assurance through extensive sampling across different types of schools (particularly independent vs state schools) and schools with different demographics.
  • It is inevitable that, however broad assessments are, there will be gaps in knowledge and skills that will affect students’ performance. If the approach taken by Ofqual and the DfE cannot take into account individual levels of disrupted learning, individual indicators of learning loss alongside final grades could be useful to indicate a student’s potential to institutions or employers making decisions based on grades.

Given the enormous levels of disruption and uncertainty this year, it is vital that young people are supported with their transitions into further study and employment. As early as possible, Ofqual should clearly communicate to education providers and employers what the grades awarded this year will reflect. To further support students who have suffered from lost learning, colleges, universities and other destinations should, where possible, assess any key gaps in learning when their new cohorts arrive and work to address these gaps, to ensure students do not remain behind as they progress through their next stage of education or work. 

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