Assessing GCSEs and A Levels

So, clarity at last about the assessment of GCSEs, A Levels and vocational qualifications in England this summer.

You would have thought that, after the algorithm chaos last summer, consultations about 2021 grading would have begun as soon as we went into the second lockdown at the end of October. By that point it would have been clear that students working towards GCSEs and A Levels in 2021 were going to be seriously affected by the disruptions spread over two school years.

In fact, that is exactly what did happen in Wales, where Lib Dem Education Minister, Kirsty Williams, announced in November that external terminal exams would not be held for the current cohort. Instead teacher assessments would be used, although these could include some assessments which would be externally set and marked. Scotland and Northern Ireland also announced their plans some weeks ago.

Back in England the consultation did not begin until this year, and it is only today that decisions have been unveiled. In the Commons today Gavin Williamson announced that grades will be allocated according to teacher assessments. The assessments will be based on what students have been taught, not by what they missed, and will take a variety of formats.

I welcome this outcome – I have been saying for a long time that the learning of the current students in Years 11 and 13 will be much more severely compromised than those in the year ahead of them, bad as that was. But I do not welcome the timing – the Government has piled further stress on students by leaving this announcement so late. And the stress affects teachers as well; they have been having to revise programmes of learning on the hoof. They now have to rapidly develop assessment procedures at the time when they are fully stretched in preparing for the return of all pupils on 8th March.

There is no one perfect way of assessing learning for qualifications. All methods have drawbacks, from inaccuracies in marking to teacher bias, not to mention the timing of assessments in relation to the mental and physical health of students. However there is a perception that teacher assessments are less robust than externally marked exams, and I would want to challenge that.

For many years I ran a number of A Level and BTEC courses in Computing in a Further Education College. All the courses included practical elements; at A Level that would be a substantial and fully documented project that included a solution developed in computer code. I had to spend the whole of the Easter break each year assessing maybe 60 of these projects. But the final mark was not just down to me – an external moderator sampled projects at random and adjusted the overall pattern of marking to make it consistent with other centres. I am sure that something similar will happen this year across the board, and indeed there will be a cohort of external examiners and exam markers who would otherwise have little to do.

But mistakes do happen, as well as the (very) occasional corrupt practice, so it is very important that there is an appeals system in place that students trust. Appeals in the past have dragged on into the next academic year, sometimes making it impossible for students to progress immediately to the next stage. This year resources should be put in place to ensure that appeals can be handled promptly.


* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Jenny Barnes 25th Feb '21 - 1:45pm

    Would you buy a fireplace from this man?

  • John Marriott 25th Feb '21 - 2:10pm

    I think that this decision is a sensible one. However, I remember from my CSE days, where teacher assessment figured prominently in the final grade, that TWYREB (The West Yorkshire Regional Examination Board?) used to organise what they called ‘Agreement Trials’ in different subjects to help teachers standardise their marking. I thought it, like the Certificate of Secondary Education it served, was a sensible idea at the time, so why not now. After all today’s exam boards are not exactly short of cash.

  • John Marriott 25th Feb '21 - 3:50pm

    Just checked. It was actually The West Yorkshire and Lindsey Regional Examinations Board. Mind you, it disappeared with the arrival of the GCSE at the end of the 1980s and my memory is clearly not what it was! RIP.

  • The LDEA prepared a statement last October about this which was sent to Teacher unions and Daisy Cooper’s assistant.
    Here is its conclusion:
    We call for the government to prepare and publish a detailed strategy this term worked out in consultation with teacher representatives stating:
    EXAMINATIONS CANCELLED, detailing a fair alternative assessment system; we suggest this be along the lines of teacher assessment including in-course assessments and a ‘mock exam’ directed by exam boards but flexibly marked by teachers as recommended by the Education Policy Institute.

  • My comment has not yet appeared. It was about an LDEA statement on exams, which was put on our website in November at

  • John Marriott 26th Feb '21 - 5:51pm

    I should have added a few points to my earlier post. The teacher assessment to which I referred was a CSE Mode Three and, in addition to getting teachers together, also involved teams of moderators, themselves mainly teachers, visiting participating schools. It worked really well and it was such a pity that this approach disappeared when the ‘all singing and dancing’ GCSE came in and swept all those teacher led initiatives away.

    I gather that today’s exam boards are thinking on the same lines. There really is nothing new under the sun, so cut out the manufactured hysteria. My wife and I have been helping with our six year old granddaughter’s home schooling in our support bubble. Looking at some of the stuff she is expected to know in English, for example, I just wonder where education is going. ‘Subordinating conjunctions’, for goodness sake? Now I know that John Stuart Mill was supposed to have been able to speak Greek and Latin at age five, but surely we don’t want our youngsters to end up with a breakdown like he did.

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