It’s exam season – what’s going on?

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Baffled by the exam system and what those grades actually mean? Kingston Maurward’s Principal Luke Rake has an explanation for all us confused ones

The summer holidays usually mean a quieter time for newspapers, with Parliament in recess and editors scrabbling around during the “silly season” with things to fill their column inches (not The BV of course), but not in this exceptional year, with the Ukraine war, the drought, the energy and cost of living crisis and the Tory leadership battle.Thankfully, the annual release of GCSE and A Level results (and a load of other qualifications one never hears of, but more on that later) provides a glorious opportunity to fill space with images of leaping young people, and the strong suggestion by many papers – particularly The Telegraph – that the only people who did A levels were girls (don’t believe me? Just check the coverage to see the innate media bias). The successes of strong A Levels from boys, or of students studying for qualifications such as BTEC and City & Guilds (of which there are more), simply disappears into the ether.
This year was notable for the changes that were required after the teacher-assessed grades during the pandemic, and the resulting shift in grade proportions during the process. It also highlighted again the changes in the last few years – what on earth is a Grade 8 or a 7 anyway? How does it compare to what we may have done when we were at school? And this year there were also questions about why the proportions of teenagers getting top marks had gone down.

Last year was different
First things first. GCSE grades changed a few years ago to allow for more fairness and accuracy at the top end. The number of students gaining the highest grade was continuing to increase (why this happens in a minute) and so the system was changed, alongside shifts under then Secretary of State Michael Gove to remove coursework from large numbers of subjects and move to more ’traditional’ end-of-year examinations.
Perhaps surprisingly, this more old-fashioned approach to having just examinations – coming with its own stresses and strains – has actually been shown to be a fairer system for students from lower income families, and thus more suitable to enable social mobility.
Interestingly, coursework generally favours more affluent students who have better home and support networks and availabliity of private study space. This is important, as it helps explain the big shifts during the pandemic. The scoring system for GCSE changed to the one in the image on the left – any student with a 7 or above has clearly achieved great things. But then, by the same token, so will a student who has struggled with academic study and gets a 4, which is the ‘gateway’ level at 16. For those of us even older, this Grade 4 is the same as an O Level C or CSE Grade 1.


But why were the grades increasing? The usual red-top arguments are that the exams are getting easier. A similarly silly rationale is that students are getting brighter.
More sensible views would note that, as new examinations systems come in, it takes time to really understand how to deliver them, not only for the test but beginning to prepare students as early as year 7 (that’s the first year of secondary school!). It is also worth noting that the examination bodies are businesses. They operate in a competitive market, so if, for example, one board gets a slightly higher proportion of students who achieve a 9, that perhaps provides them with some greater appeal. Schools can – and do – switch boards from time to time.
Most importantly, though, the grade boundaries are set by the boards themselves, and this shifts every single year. Thus, the exact same exam score may elicit a different grade in different years. This profiling (or norm-referencing) enables the exam boards to control precisely the proportion of students who get a certain grade and prevent wide swings. As such, it’s entirely within THEIR control what happens, not the kids’.

Why the big shifts?
During the lockdown periods of the pandemic, students (including my own children) were unable to sit exams and as such were awarded grades according to school-assessed performance measures. These were then aggregated by the exam boards and then, importantly, normalised by the Department for Education using the now-infamous algorithm. This caused a huge surge in top grades, and also significantly also favoured the more affluent and independent schools.

Is this fair? No.

Is it the schools’ fault? Also no.

This is because the system was hard-baked into a sociological process where students were being assessed on what they had already done and the confidence of staff on how they may do. There is bias all over this, most of it unconscious. Teachers routinely over-estimate student grades and ability (which is why predicted grades are treated with a massive pinch of salt at A level by the universities). This was particularly noticeable where students came from affluent families, which is why those students have this year, proportionately, seen the largest reduction in the top grades.
Schools cannot improve equality or change the background of their students. They have enough else to do, and they do it brilliantly.
As a result, the whole grade system fell down, as the usual processes to manage the proportions of students at each level weren’t in play. They needed rebalancing this year through a proportionate shift back, down to nearer 2019 levels of performance. They will almost certainly need one more year of rebalancing, and then we will return to the usual process where the number of passes and top grades incrementally improves by 0.3% or so every year – until we have another step-change in how students are assessed. I’m on the 15th Secretary of State for Education in my career – another one will be along in a minute, so it’ll always be changing.
A final thought for those of you with children, like my own, who sat A Levels or GCSEs this summer. Their grades will undoubtedly be lower than had they received centre-assessed grades two years ago. Those grades will thus be competing in the work market for jobs in the future.

Is this fair? Er, no.

It really isn’t, and was both completely predictable and entirely avoidable. Gavin Williamson was clearly asleep at the wheel.
However, in the long run, it is unlikely to make a permanent difference, although this requires time to be sure. Grades tend only to be used as staging posts at certain times, and as such the competition tends to be from the same peer group (getting into Uni for example). If you’re over 30, when was the last time someone asked about your exam grades?

Skills and attitudes
What’s far more important is the range of skills young people develop around the hard grades – and this is what is most important now. Students need to be getting jobs, doing volunteer work, exercising, socialising and getting as many strings to their bows as possible.
Your CV gets you an interview, your attitude gets you the job.
For those of you who got your grades this summer – don’t worry, whatever they are. I know plenty of people with top grades and Oxbridge degrees who are far less happy than those without and who work in trades, and they are also frequently less financially secure. Yes, you really need to get your maths and English, which is why if you’ve not yet got a 4, any sixth form or college will make you resit and continue teaching you those subjects. Outside that, though, there’s more that matters.
There is a world out there beyond the mundane path of GCSE > A Level > University. It’s actually the one most people take, whatever the mainstream media likes to tell us.
The path you take is something only you can choose; just enjoy the journey.

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