How Will GCSEs, AS & A Levels Be Awarded in 2020?

June 1, 2020
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COVID-19 has transformed our lives as we know it. Our work routines have had to adapt, our usual social plans are cancelled, and formal education has grounded to a halt. Schools are still closed to the majority of students, which means that many children are learning from home.

GCSE and A Level students, who would have been taking exams this summer and have further education opportunities resting on them, are facing a particular uncertainty right now. 

We know that this is a worrying time for both students and their parents or carers. As a result, we’ve pulled together information from the government, including the Department for Education, to provide you with some guidance about what to expect over the next couple of months and how your child will receive their grades.

Will GCSE & A Level Students Sit Exams in Summer 2020?

Students will not sit exams this summer. Rather, they will be provided with a grade that reflects what they would have been likely to achieve if they sat the cancelled exams.

Schools have been closed since 20th March except for children of key workers and vulnerable children, creating much uncertainty about students’ futures. And, with COVID-19 expected to have a significant impact on the country for months to come, including on the education system, this uncertainty will continue for a while longer. 

The Department for Education decided to cancel exams as a way of regaining some certainty for students, parents, and teachers during this time. Additionally, the Secretary of State for Education announced that cancelling the 2020 exam series in England would help to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, and schools should instead focus on supporting vulnerable students.

What is Replacing the Exam Series for Summer 2020?

Ofqual have set out details for schools and colleges, as well as for students, parents, and carers, about how GCSEs and A Levels will be awarded following the cancellation of this year’s exams.

For this year’s GCSE, AS Level, and A Level awards, schools and colleges are providing centre assessment grades for students. This temporarily replaces the standardised assessment process for this summer. 

The centre assessment grade will be a formal grade and so will have the same status as grades from any other year. This means that they will be accepted at all further education institutions, like colleges and universities, so students should still be able to complete further study as they would have previously. 

A group of students heading into school

How Will Grades Be Determined with the New System of Assessment?

Despite the Department for Education announcing that students will still be awarded a grade, and can still access further education, understandably students, parents, and carers still have many questions. We’ll aim to answer some of the most common below.

What Information Will the Grades be Based On?

Ofqual have stated that the grades that students receive should be fair, objective, and carefully considered. The grades should mirror what schools and colleges believe the student would have been most likely to achieve had they sat the exam.

Exam boards are contacting schools, colleges, and any further exam centres to ask them to submit the following things in order to work out an overall grade for students:

  • A centre assessment grade for every student in each of their subjects. This is the grade that the student would have most likely achieved if they had sat their exams and completed any other assessments. This centre assessment grade is based on a teacher’s professional judgement and the following:
    • Classwork and bookwork from throughout the year and how this compares to the overall level the student is working at.
    • Any participation in performances, for example in subjects like drama, music, and P.E.
    • Any assessments that are not exam based, such as coursework or portfolios.
    • The results of any mock exams.
    • Any previous exam results, such as if a student is resitting, or A Level students who have grades from AS levels.
    • Any other relevant information about student performance over the course of their study.
  • The rank order of students within each grade band. For example, if a group of twenty students are thought to achieve a Grade 5 in GCSE English, then those students should all be ranked from highest to lowest based on how far into the grade band they would be. They should be ranked where Student 1 is most secure at that grade, Student 2 is the second most secure, and so on, until all the students have been ranked.
  • A declaration from the Head of Centre who is making the submission to the exam board.

Who Will Determine These Grades?

Teachers are the ones who will assess the grade they think a student would have achieved if they sat their summer exams, based on their overall professional judgement and the work they have seen over the rest of the academic year. Newly Qualified Teachers (NQTs) are also permitted to provide grades for students, but they will need support from their head of department.

Paul Whiteman, who is the leader of the National Association of Head Teachers, has commented that there is no “perfect solution” for grading students in the light of cancelled exams. However, he believes that teachers grading students, based on their work throughout the year, is “pragmatic and the fairest approach to take in these exceptional circumstances”. 

Female teacher assisting students in the classroom

How Will Grades Be Standardised?

Ofqual and exam boards have worked together to develop a system that provides students with grades that are fair and reflective of their achievements. This system will ensure that students are not disadvantaged in progressing onto college, sixth form, university, apprenticeships, training, or work because of the pandemic.

To ensure that the grades provided are as fair and accurate as possible across all schools and colleges within the country, exam boards are putting every centre assessment grade through a standardisation process. This standardisation will be done using a model that is currently being developed with Ofqual.

This model will look at expected outcomes nationally for this year’s students, the previous attainment of students at each school and college, and the results of a student’s school or college in recent years. 

If grading judgements appear to be more generous in some schools, and more harsh in others, or they are unlikely in the context of previous results at that school, then exam boards will adjust the grades of some, or all, students in that school accordingly.

The standardisation model ensures that the overall distribution of grades is fair across the country and is consistent with other years. The model also provides confidence that students will not be disadvantaged if some schools are more generous than others when making their judgements.

Will Students Receive Their Predicted Grades?

Students will not simply receive the grades that their teachers previously predicted for them. Instead, they will be provided with a grade that takes many different factors into account, including their classwork throughout the year, their participation in various subject areas, and the results of any mock exams.

Teachers will have to complete two tasks – awarding each student a grade and ranking students within a grade band – to determine the grade a student receives, rather than relying solely on predicted grades.

Does the Same Process Apply for all Students?

The process we have outlined above applies to the majority of students. However, it may be slightly different for private candidates, such as those who have been homeschooled, follow distance-learning programmes or study independently. Heads of centre have still been asked to provide centre assessment grades for private candidates who are registered to take exams in their centre. These candidates should also still be included in the assessment centre’s rank order if the head of centre is confident that they, along with staff, have seen sufficient evidence of the student’s achievement and they can make an objective judgement.

However, it may be the case that an assessment centre grade is not possible for some of these students, which is frustrating if they were using this grade for progression, like to go to university. Sadly, in this case, these students may have to wait and take their exams in the autumn or next summer in order to get their grades. 

The Department for Education has consulted with organisations who represent universities and further education colleges to consider private candidates during admissions this summer. They have confirmed that institutions will consider a range of other evidence about these students and enable them to progress wherever it’s possible.

Is this Process the Same for all Four Nations of the UK?

Each of the four nations are approaching the cancelled exam season, and providing grades, differently. To summarise:

  • In England, teachers will assess the grades that they think students would have achieved in their cancelled GCSE and A Level exams. This will be used by exam boards, along with a ranking by ability of pupils in each subject, to determine an overall grade. This is the process we have set out above.
  • In Scotland, teachers will estimate grades. The Scotitish Qualifications Authority says that coursework, which has already been submitted by pupils throughout the year, will not count towards results.
  • In Wales, teachers will also estimate grades, and they have said there will be no opportunity to sit an extra exam in the autumn season.

In Northern Ireland, grades will be determined by teachers, data provided by schools and colleges, and statistical information. Additionally, AS grades will not count towards overall A Level grades, but will be taken as a standalone qualification.

When Will Results Be Released?

Schools are not allowed to discuss grades with students, parents or carers, and cannot disclose the grades they have submitted to exam boards or how they were ranked. Any discussion about grades must wait until after the final results are issued. 

The Department for Education is working to get students’ final results out as soon as possible. The results will not be delayed after the dates they were expected in August, and may actually come earlier to ensure students can have some certainty and knowledge surrounding their current situation.

A group of female students opening GCSE exam results

What Happens if you are Unhappy with the Calculated Grade?

The Department for Education and exam boards are working hard to ensure that students are not disadvantaged by the cancellation of exams and they receive a fair and accurate grade. A lot of factors are being taken into consideration before they make their decision. 

However, if a student is unhappy with the grade they receive, they have the opportunity to appeal it where appropriate. The appeal process is still under careful consideration about how exactly it will work, but more specifics on appeal arrangements will be published soon.

Students will also have an opportunity to sit their exams at the earliest reasonable time in the next academic year. The timeframe for this is still yet to be decided and is dependent on the ongoing COVID-19 situation.

How to Support Students Who Need Help During COVID-19

If you’re a parent of a student whose GCSE, AS or A Levels have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s understandable that you might be concerned. Your child is also likely to be feeling concerned and pretty distressed, too. Feelings of worry, frustration, and anxiety are bound to be high at this time, especially after working so hard for so many years only to have it all disrupted at the final exam time.

Looking after a teenager’s mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic is hugely important. The closure of schools during one of the toughest years of their education, alongside the cancellation of exams which could determine their future, has put a huge strain on teenagers and their mental health.

Encourage your child to take time away from thinking about COVID-19 and the effect it’s had on their exams. Discourage them from frequently reading the news and try to distract them from worrying about things that they can’t control. Consider going out for exercise, reading books, baking, being creative, or taking up a new hobby. Encourage them to keep in touch with their friends and discuss how they’re feeling. You should also reassure them that you understand and empathise with what they’re going through, and you’re always there to listen to them and talk to them about any concerns they have. 

Finally, if you’re worried about your child’s mental health, don’t let them struggle in silence. Reach out to external support networks, such as contacting their school or teachers remotely, or speak to your GP. There are many people who are available to help, so your child should never have to struggle in silence.

COVID-19 has caused a huge disruption to the education system, particularly for those students who were going to sit exams in the summer with the hope of progressing onto further study or a career. However, each of these students will still receive a formal grade, based on their work throughout the year, that they can still use to progress and fulfil their ambitions.

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