Schools minister and Ofqual Chief Regulator questioned on exam standards in 2021

11th December 2020

Schools minister Nick Gibb and Chief Regulator at Ofqual Dame Glenys Stacey took questions on exams in 2021 from the Education Select Committee on Tuesday. Both were questioned by the chair of the committee, Robert Halfon MP, about grade inflation, and whether or not this was likely to do anything to address the disadvantage gap.

Nick Gibb argued that grade inflation in 2020 and 2021 was not about addressing grade inflation, but rather to ensure fairness between the years. This is especially true for those taking exams in 2021, who have suffered even greater disruption than those who received grades in the summer of this year. He went on to say that the wider package of measures announced last week and earlier this term were designed to deal with the different experiences of Covid-19 within this years’ cohort.

Glenys Stacey agreed, defending grade inflation for the ‘pandemic cohort’. She noted that students have faced unprecedented disruption this year, and that there is no right answer to the question of standards during a pandemic. While she said there had been creeping grade inflation in previous years, she added that standards have to be different this year and there was little support for maintaining 2019 standards.

Like Nick Gibb, she said that the wider package of measures were likely to be most helpful to those students who are least well prepared, often from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, she also noted that addressing the problems of disadvantage requires more than just changes to qualifications.

Robert Halfon went on to ask if there is a fear that this may constitute grade hyperinflation, and that there is a risk we are baking grade inflation into the system. Glenys Stacey disagreed, saying that grade inflation was a necessary recognition of the impact on all students of lockdown measures this year. She added that the pandemic cohort goes beyond 2021, and that she wasn’t sure when normality in standards would be resumed.

Similarly, Nick Gibb said that grade inflation was necessary this academic year for fairness, and that either adjusting grade boundaries or using 2019 standards would be unfair. While we will have to return to this issue at some point and consider the long term impact of grade inflation, he said that those taking exams in 2021 were the wrong cohort to begin this process with. And this may go on into 2022 as we begin to better understand the continuing impact of the coronavirus. He maintained that this was not grade inflation being baked into the system, but a response for the pandemic cohort.

The recognition from both Nick Gibb and Glenys Stacey that this is an issue beyond 2021 is welcome. Additionally, the package of measures relating to the differential in learning experiences during the pandemic is important to addressing the disadvantage gap. However it is not clear that these measures will have a significant enough impact to prevent a further widening of the gap.

In our survey of Schools North East Partner Schools in response to the exams announcement last week, the majority of respondents felt that the measures did not go far enough in considering the impact of lockdown on those from disadvantaged backgrounds, exacerbated by the fact that the announcement was made so late into the first term.

While a new expert group to look at differential learning and monitor the variation in the impact of the pandemic on students across the country is being set up, Robert Halfon noted that this would only be reporting in Spring, and any decisions resulting from advice from the panel would be after already significant disruption to learning.

Schools North East has previously lobbied for urgent clarity on exams and serious consultation with the education profession, and we will continue to do so to ensure a fair system of assessments for all students whatever their background.