The politics of exam results

August always means an anxious wait for results days, but this year pupils will be feeling particularly apprehensive. England’s exams regulator, Ofqual, has said that national results will be lower than last year’s and are expected to be similar to those before Covid. Some reports estimate that around 50,000 A-level students will therefore miss out on getting the A* and A grades they could have expected if they took their exams last year. They will also face intense competition for top university places given the record numbers of international students applying too. Readjusting after the grade inflation of the pandemic was always going to be painful. In 2019, 25.5 per cent of A-level results were grades

How to succeed in exams

Exams start on Monday. Thousands of A-level and GCSE pupils will be swotting hard for them right now. Some will do well; others won’t. Knowledge and ability are the two obvious keys to success. But there’s another factor that’s often overlooked: exam technique. Having taught thousands of students of all abilities at several leading schools, I know this is a vital reason why some teenagers are more successful than others: they use the right exam techniques under pressure. So what are these techniques?  First and foremost, arrive early. Exams need a clear head and turning up at the last minute is certain to be stressful. Once in the exam hall (which

A-level results: has government reversed grade inflation?

As A-level results come out today, we will find out if the government has made any progress in stemming exam grade inflation. As always, some candidates will celebrate while others will be disappointed. This year, though, the latter group is expected to be more numerous because exam boards are supposed to be clamping down on the implausibly high grades awarded during the two years when school exams were suspended due to lockdowns. Anyone looking solely at exam grades without other information to hand might wonder: what was it about Covid that appeared to boost the educational attainment of so many 18-year-olds? In 2019, the last normal year, 76 per cent

When will exams get back to normal?

It wouldn’t be credible to say that this year’s A-Levels grades are comparable with 2019’s: almost 45 per cent of entries got an A or A* compared to 25 per cent two years ago. But, as I say in the magazine this week, the problem is that you can’t simply snap back to normal next year. Many of those who got their grades this year won’t go to university until next year. This — and the fact that the education of those in the year below has been disrupted too — means it wouldn’t be fair for exams to return to normal next year. That would leave the class of 2022 competing for

James Forsyth

How to burst the grade inflation bubble

The Tories regard a return to rigorously marked exams as one of their big achievements in education. In 2010, the year they took office, more than a third of A-level entries received an A or A* grade. By 2019, following an overhaul of the curriculum, only a quarter did. Despite the havoc wreaked by Covid on education, the government was determined to carry on this trend. That’s why last year, after exams were scrapped, the Department for Education tried to further control grade inflation by using an algorithm. It worked, in part, by assessing the past results of schools — but a consequence was that exceptional pupils from historically underperforming

Charles Moore

What ministers won’t admit about A-levels

The tale of A-levels shows how ministers can sometimes find themselves in a position when it is simply too dangerous to admit something that is true. To the exterior eye, it is obvious that the temporary abolition of exams and its replacement by teacher assessment has produced grade inflation. This year’s A-level cohort has not suddenly got a third better than its pre-Covid equivalent. You or I can point that out, but if Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, says it, he thereby implies that he has presided over a change which devalues the exam, seriously weakening the basis of admissions to university. He will also be accused of disparaging pupils

Gender neutrality and the war on women’s literature

Education has become embroiled in a culture war and rather than extricating itself politely, it just keeps digging. What gets taught has long been subject to debate: move beyond the basics and you rapidly head into dangerous terrain (although, look hard enough, and you will find those prepared to argue that even maths and spelling are racist). Now it’s not just taught content but the name of modules that is under the woke microscope. One of the UK’s leading exam boards, OCR, has proposed renaming the ‘Women in Literature’ section of its A level English courses. It is taking votes on new titles: ‘gender in literature’ or ‘representing gender’. But

The class of 2020 are being failed yet again

Last year, after the cancellation of exams and the ensuing A Level results fiasco, which saw thousands of students downgraded by an algorithm, the Government promised this would never happen again. They asked students to put their faith in a system that had failed them once before, and guaranteed that lessons would be learnt. Yet, one year later, young people are being put in yet another impossible position by the education system. Despite earlier assurances from the Education Secretary that exams would not be cancelled this year, teacher-assessed grades will end up deciding the fate of the class of 2020/21. That will create its own set of problems for many

The impact of lockdown on education

Just how damaging has lockdown been to children’s education? An Oxford University study has tried to quantify it by analysing data from Dutch schoolchildren — who, unlike in Britain where exams were cancelled, took tests shortly before and shortly after the first lockdown last spring. The level of parental education was a big predictor of falling performance If any country’s children had managed to get through lockdown with their education unscathed, suggest the authors, it ought to be those in the Netherlands. There, schools were closed for a relatively short period — eight weeks — and the penetration of broadband in homes is higher than in any other country. Yet

Spare a thought for students

Spare a thought for those due to sit their A-Levels next summer. They have already had considerable disruption to their education. But today’s announcement that this year’s A-Level grades will be done by teacher assessment risks compounding their misfortune.  It means that the current lower sixth will be competing for university places — and jobs — against those who have received teacher assessed grades, which are bound to be more generous than those that an exam would produce. (For all sorts of understandable reasons, teachers will want to give their pupils the benefit of the doubt when awarding potentially life-changing marks). The disadvantage the current lower sixth cohort is being put

Why aren’t exams going ahead?

When Boris Johnson talked about trusting teachers, I suspected that the government must be desperate. Trust is not a word I have head much in my 25-year teaching career. I am no longer trusted to go into a GCSE exam hall to look at the paper that my class is sitting in case I somehow manage to undermine the integrity of the exam. But that was 2019. This morning Gavin Williamson confirmed that this year, it will come down to me and my colleagues in school. There will be no exam papers, no external markers, and certainly no algorithms. Before the pandemic we weren’t even trusted to mark coursework for

Prepare for the next A-level fiasco

When I was at school, the best grade you could hope to achieve on your termly report card was A5, with A being the highest grade for attainment, and 5 being the lowest grade for effort. I expect there will be a lot more students hoping for, and outright expecting, their own A5s this summer.  In light of the news that GCSEs and A-levels exams will be cancelled this year, Ofqual has now confirmed that grades will be decided by teachers. Schools can use mock exams, coursework and essays, or assessments set by exam boards, but these are optional, will not be taken in exam conditions, nor decide final grades. Make no mistake:

Why Williamson’s u-turn won’t affect all GCSE students

The future became more uncertain for hundreds of thousands of youngsters this week when Gavin Williamson cancelled their GCSE exams. But pupils at some of Britain’s top public schools were affected less than their contemporaries in state maintained schools. Why? Because what Williamson did not talk about when he cancelled exams were International GCSEs. Broadly equivalent to domestic exams, and offered by the same exam boards, they are marketed worldwide and, unlike GCSEs, look set to go ahead this summer. Britain’s educational divide has always been fairly stark. And this decision could further widen that gap between rich and poor pupils. As a teacher, I was pleased to hear Williamson tell

Cancelling exams shows Boris has failed to learn his lesson

‘Don’t worry, they won’t cancel exams again,’ I confidently assured my fifteen-year-old middle son shortly before Christmas. He was sitting his mock GCSEs, and fretting over how much they might matter, admitting: ‘I haven’t done enough work.’ Only a month ago, education secretary Gavin Williamson gave a ‘cast-iron guarantee’ exams would ‘absolutely’ go ahead in England. It seemed clear he and Boris Johnson had learnt their lesson. They’d not be so foolish as to do the same thing over again: pull exams without a proper plan of what to do instead. More fool me. For my family – and for plenty of others in a similar position – it’s once bitten, twice shy.

The Romans wouldn’t have understood our exam obsession

Many commentators have argued that the recent grading controversy indicates just how important public examinations are. Up to a point, Lord Copper. Romans did jobs, not ‘education’. Most who went to school (there was no state provision) probably learnt not much more than the basic three Rs (peasant families — the majority of the population — needed their children to work the land). A freed slave in Petronius’s Satyricon boasts that he knows ‘no geometry or fancy criticism or any such meaningless drivel, but I do know the alphabet and I can work out percentages and measures and currency’; Horace mocked pupils for being asked what is left from 1/12th