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Teacher-assessed grades are better than exams, Ofqual chief says

GCSE and A-Level students did not sit exams this year and will instead be awarded grades by teachers

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Monday 09 August 2021 22:34 BST
Students will receive results decided by teachers on Tuesday
Students will receive results decided by teachers on Tuesday (PA)

Teacher assessment of pupils is a better and more “accurate” way of awarding grades than formal exams, the government’s qualification regulator has said.

Simon Lebus, the interim head of Ofqual, said having teachers grade their pupils on work throughout the year would give a more “holistic judgement” than the “snapshot” provided by an exam.

His comments came ahead of students receiving their A-level and Btec results on Tuesday. Results will be given as teacher-assessed grades this year because of the widespread closure of schools during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The grades will not be adjusted by algorithm, in a departure from last year’s approach, which attracted widespread criticism.

Headteachers welcomed the regulator’s statements, which represent a shift in government thinking, and said ministers had in recent years become “fixated” on assessing students “almost entirely” using final exams.

After publication of this article, Ofqual told The Independent that Mr Lebus meant that the teacher-assessed grades would be more accurate than exams this year, because many students would not have covered the whole curriculum as a result of the pandemic. However, Ofqual believes that exams are the fairest method of assessment in a normal year.

Teaching leaders warned that this year’s policy had been brought in in a chaotic way that had put schools under extreme pressure.

“A way to think of it is the exams are a bit like a snapshot, a photograph: you capture an instant, it’s a form of sampling, whereas teacher assessment allows teachers to observe student performance over a much longer period in a rather more complex way, taking into account lots of different pieces of work and arriving at a holistic judgement,” Mr Lebus told the BBC.

“I think from that point of view, we can feel satisfied that it’s likely to give a much more accurate and substantial reflection of what the students are capable of achieving.”

Kate Green, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said: “Students have worked incredibly hard in extraordinary circumstances and should be proud of the results they are receiving today.

“They have done this in spite of a Conservative government which has let them down at every turn and shown no ambition for their futures.”

Boris Johnson said earlier in the academic year that it would not be “fair” for exams to go ahead as normal given disruption to schooling. Mainstream schools in England moved to online teaching in the winter due to rising Covid cases and deaths.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told The Independent: “Exams are obviously a different way of assessing students than teacher assessments. The former is essentially a snapshot of performance on the day the student sits an exam, and tends to favour students who are good at exams.

“The latter is a more holistic judgement which takes into account a range of evidence. There are pros and cons to both approaches. There is a good argument for using a greater range of assessment methods in the future which blend both approaches.

“The government in recent years has become fixated on students being assessed almost entirely on a set of terminal exams, which has created far too much pressure in the system and on young people.”

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of teachers’ union the NASUWT, said: “Students, teachers and school leaders have worked extremely hard towards this year’s results in the face of unique and hugely difficult circumstances.

“School and college staff deserve recognition of the huge pressures and additional workload they have faced in producing centre-assessed grades, and young people deserve praise for the tenacity they have shown in dealing with the huge uncertainties and anxieties of the last 18 months.

“The challenges of the awarding process this year were significantly exacerbated by the government’s delay in drawing up contingency plans.

“Whilst schools have done a tremendous job in picking up the pieces left of the Government’s last-minute decision-making, many teachers were left running on empty with teacher workload at breaking point at the end of last term. We cannot afford a repeat of this confusion and chaos for yet another year.”

Asked about the comments, the prime minister’s spokesperson said: “We believe that exams remain the fairest form of assessment.”

After Downing Street’s comments and the publication of this article, an Ofqual spokesperson approached The Independent and said: “Simon’s remarks were taken out of context. Simon meant TAGs will be more accurate this year than exams could have been, were they to have taken place. In a normal year, our preference would be for exams.”

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