Could GCSEs end up on the COVID casualty list?

Dr Kevin Stannard

The GDST’s Director of Innovation & Learning, Dr Kevin Stannard, looks at what the pandemic will mean for Year 11 & Year 13 pupils.

It all seems very straightforward. GCSE and A level results will be released on their scheduled dates in August. Ofqual and the exam boards say they can generate accurate grades without candidates taking any exams.

Exam boards will ensure that roughly the right proportion of candidates get each grade, subject by subject. This isn’t very difficult, assuming that this year’s national cohort is roughly as clever as last year’s. Nationally, the distribution of grades should be about the same as last year.

How will it work at school level? The exam boards will engineer aggregate results that mirror previous years, controlling for a school’s past exam record and for any change in the ability profile of the cohort. If a school usually gets, say, 5% of its biology candidates an A* at A level, and if this year’s Year 13 biologists fit the same ability profile as previous years, then this year the school should expect 1 in 20 of its biologists to get an A*.

Schools have been asked to submit estimates of the grade each student would have been expected to obtain under normal circumstances. The exam boards will pretty much ignore these, because schools will arrive at their predictions in contrary ways, and there are fears that schools’ own predictions will be inflated. The exam boards will instead generate their own grade distributions, based on data they already have about school and cohort performance.

Schools have also been asked to rank their candidates in each subject, and this is going to be crucial. If the exam board decides that a school merits three grade 9s in geography GCSE, those grades will go to the first three students on the school’s list for geography, and so on.

At system level, the method will probably produce the right results. At school level, too, the results should, on the whole, be roughly equitable, although some schools will feel hard done by if the exam boards predict fewer high grades than they think they deserve, based on their much more detailed knowledge of their students.

It is at individual level that the method will be felt more unevenly. An individual student will be at the mercy of a statistical calculation based on the previous performance of her school, and where her school feels she ranks alongside her fellow students.

The school estimates and rank orders will have to be signed off by two subject specialists (including the Head of Department) and then the Head. Teachers or Heads of Department will be expected to show their working, being clear on what evidence they’ve used to reach their conclusions.

There won’t be any real chance to appeal. The only recourse will be to re-take in the autumn (there are plans for a special exam session, although it isn’t clear if all subjects will be available), or the following summer (Covid-20 allowing) – little comfort to school leavers who miss their place at university. For those starting A level study in September, the distraction of GCSE re-takes could delay things still further.

The emergency arrangements at system level this year are clear. For individuals, though, the outcomes and their consequences are much less certain, and for many, they are likely to be felt well after we’re all out of isolation.

The best advice to students who feel let down is to be aware that their results reflect an imperfect system, not their abilities and, more importantly, not their potential. There will be hundreds, probably thousands, of students in the same boat, and sixth forms and universities will understand and make allowances. Most importantly, use the summer term to keep learning, unconstrained (for once) by narrow exam syllabuses: follow your passions, dig deeper, master a new skill.

And the enduring legacy of lockdown for the education system?

If it’s easy to calculate grades without exams, why in normal years are students faced with a battery of tests that could have been avoided? One legacy of lockdown might be a return to teaching rather than testing for much of Year 11, if not Year 13. Could GCSEs end up on the COVID casualty list?

It might even change the university admissions time-line, if Higher Education decides that, long-term, they’d rather admit students in January with actual qualifications rather than make guesses on the basis of predicted grades before applicants have even sat their A levels.