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Institute of Education Blog


Expert opinion from academics at the UCL Institute of Education


The Covid-19 cohort and the ‘mess’ of public exams: reconsidering roles and responsibilities

Blog Editor, IOE Digital13 August 2020

Melanie Ehren and Christopher Chapman.

On 18 March the Secretary of State for Education told Parliament that, in response to the Coronavirus  pandemic, schools and colleges in England would shut to all but the children of critical workers and vulnerable children until further notice. Exams scheduled for the summer would not take place.

Government worked with the education sector and Ofqual to develop a process to provide calculated GCSE, AS and A level grades for each student which reflects their performance as fairly as possible and ensure consistency across the sector. The process involves the following steps: (more…)

Predicted grades – what do we know, and why does it matter?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital11 August 2020

Gill Wyness.

Whose grades are being predicted?

Predicted grades are a common feature of the English education system, with teachers’ predictions of pupils’ A level performance forming the basis of university applications each year.

What’s different this year?

The Covid-19 pandemic has put these predictions under the spotlight. The cancellation of exams means that all year 11 and year 13 pupils will instead receive ‘calculated grades’ based on teacher predictions.

How well do teachers predict grades?

Teachers’ predicted grades have been shown to be inaccurate but the majority of inaccurate grades are over-predicted – in other words, too high. (more…)

GCSE and A level maths students are missing out on a key learning period. How can we help them?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital15 June 2020

Jennie Golding

For GCSE and A level grades this summer, Ofqual will use a system whereby teachers synthesise all the information available to them to assess students. Centres will be asked to rank their students in each subject entry, to allow for moderation in the light of ‘baseline’ data to allow for differences in the cohort, and a school or college’s past performance.

Most in the education community seem to think this is the fairest that can be achieved in the circumstances. Indeed, the outcomes will arguably be fairer to many students than a one-off exam-only system, although inevitably there will be students who will feel under-rewarded.

But what will these GCSEs actually mean? What will that magic grade 4 in a GCSE Mathematics, for example, represent?

My own ongoing research, begun before the pandemic but still continuing, shows that many schools and colleges, in a range of circumstances, have not attempted to set up any structure for home-working for their year 11 (more…)

Making post-GCSE decisions during the Covid-19 crisis: the need for action

Blog Editor, IOE Digital16 May 2020

Lorna Unwin, Ruth Lupton, Stephanie Thompson, Sanne Velthuis, republished from the BERA blog.

In the public debate about the impacts of the Covid-19 lockdown on education, much attention has understandably been given to concerns about disadvantaged children falling behind at school, and to the potential impact of the estimation of examination grades on young people’s post-school prospects.

Much less has been heard about disruption to the practical processes that would normally be getting underway now as 16-year-olds decide their post-GCSE future. So it was good to hear David Johnston MP at the House of Commons’ education committee’s session with Gavin Williamson (starts 10.09am) urging the secretary of state to monitor destinations data as a measure of the Department for Education’s success in mitigating the impacts of the crisis. Responding, Williamson expressed concern that young people who are out of school or college this spring and summer may not be urged to take up the opportunities available to them.

Our ongoing research for the Nuffield Foundation focusses on the post-school transitions of young people who do not achieve the benchmark grade 4+ in English and maths. This group is more likely than their higher-attaining peers to be disadvantaged and/or to have special educational needs. In 2019, 23 per cent of

It looked as though our regulators were finally willing to trust teachers – but Ofqual’s latest guidance suggests otherwise

Blog Editor, IOE Digital7 May 2020

Mary Richardson.

Over recent decades England has seen the gradual erosion of trust in teachers and in teaching as a profession. This suspicion and casual condemnation happens across many public spheres and is most prominent during August each year when the results of the GCSEs and A levels are picked over and hotly debated.

Of course 2020 will be very different as there will be no final exams. Instead the results days (13 August for A level and 20 August for GCSE) will see the release of grades that comprise a range of evidence provided by teachers and schools.

A casual view of any social media or news reports relating to education at present reveals a continual stream of concerns, questions and more than a healthy dose of rumour suggesting that these very high stakes assessments might disadvantage students both now and in the 2021 cycle.

Ofqual has been quick to respond to this and their consultation documents include a review of evidence from (more…)

GCSE results in English and maths: whatever approach is taken, here is how it should be validated

Blog Editor, IOE Digital27 March 2020

John Jerrim

We found out last week that GCSE grades for the 2019/20 cohort will be based upon judgments made by teachers. It has been announced that Ofqual will be working with the sector to provide guidance on how this should be done, with one possible approach suggested by FFT Education Datalab here.

As many people have pointed out, one of the potential problems with teacher-determined grades is that they could be biased for or against certain groups (e.g. children from lower socio-economic status backgrounds receiving worse grades than their more advantaged peers). It is therefore critical that a. such predictions are underpinned by data wherever possible, and b. that the guidance issued by Ofqual (and the approach taken by teachers in making their predictions) has been validated.

This is how I suggest it could be done in English and maths.


Exam fever: more coursework and less reliance on final tests would make it easier to award accurate grades

Blog Editor, IOE Digital20 March 2020

Tina Isaacs and Mary Richardson.

Yesterday Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson announced the cancellation of this year’s GCSEs and A level examinations. “We will make sure that pupils get the qualifications they need and deserve for their academic career”, Mr Johnson said.

The qualifications regulator, Ofqual, has not yet stated how this might be done but it has pledged to ‘work through the detail’ urgently with the Department for Education. As former employees of both Ofqual and an examination board before joining UCL we couldn’t be more sympathetic to their quandary; examinations and awarding are highly complex processes and subject to continual scrutiny and criticism.  Coming up with plausible grades for students who have been studying away for two years and will now face no examination to determine their achievements, is not a task to be taken lightly.

While extraordinary, the current context does put into sharp relief the risks in heavy reliance on end of course exams, especially when combined with a diminution of teacher (more…)