Issue 108 | August 2020

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Because of the Coronavirus outbreak, on 18 March the UK government announced that all 2020 summer examinations were cancelled (but, for the avoidance of any confusion, not in the ‘woke’ sense). On 3 April Ofqual published detailed information for schools, colleges, teachers, students, and parents on how GCSE, AS, A-Level, and vocational and technical qualifications in England would be graded and awarded. Teachers were asked to submit the grades they thought candidates would have received had they taken exams, and to rank them using those grades. These were referred to as Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) and were submitted by schools, colleges, and other exam centres to exam boards. The grades were then ‘standardised’ using an algorithm developed by Ofqual that included, amongst other things, the historical exam performance of centres and student achievement data to moderate the CAGS submitted. Similar arrangements were made in other UK countries. The aim, said Ofqual, was that at national level, the 2020 estimated results would reflect performance over the last 3 years.

Following the standardisation process, the majority of the standardised grades awarded to students were either the same or within one grade of those predicted by teachers. They were also collectively higher in all UK nations than in previous years (and in some cases were at record high levels). However, many students discovered that the grades they had been awarded were lower than those predicted by their teachers and in some cases much lower. Neither these students nor their parents were prepared to accept these lower grades and it was then that the trouble started. More information on how it was proposed that grades should be standardised can be found at:


England, Wales and Northern Ireland have broadly similar education and qualifications systems, but Scotland has its own system. Scotland was the first UK country to publish grades and the Scottish exams regulator, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), did this on 4 August. The standardised grades awarded showed a significant improvement compared with 2019. However, it also revealed that more than a quarter of teacher assessed grades had been lowered. This resulted in protests from those students who had received lower grades than expected and outrage from their parents and from opposition politicians in the Scottish Parliament. The furore eventually forced the Scottish Education and Skills Minister, John Swinney, to apologise to students and on 11 August, the SQA was instructed to withdraw the lower standardised grades, and to re-issue students with the higher grades based on their teacher predictions (although students could keep their standardised grades if these were higher). The result was that around 124,000 results were reversed. The main consequence of this is that 2020 pass rates for Scottish exams are now very much higher than they were in 2019 or in any previous year. For example:

  • Pass rates at National 5 grades A-C (equivalent to GCSE grades 4-9) have increased by 10.4%.
  • Higher (roughly equivalent to AS-Level) pass rates have increased by 14.4%.
  • Advanced Higher (roughly equivalent to A-Level) pass rates have increased by 13.4%.

This is an annual increase the degree of which has never been seen in Scottish exam results, and set the scene for what was to happen when other UK countries published their A-Level results a week later and GCSE results in the week after that. 


Welsh A-Level results were published on 13 August and revealed that 42% of teacher assessed grades had been lowered by the Welsh exams regulator, Qualifications Wales. This was done, said the regulator, because the grades estimated predicted by teachers were ‘too generous’. The public outrage that followed saw the Senedd Education Committee recalled from recess. Although 94% of the standardised grades awarded were the same, or within one grade, of those that students were predicted to achieve by their teachers, the Welsh Government was heavily criticised for its handling of the matter. Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford, insisted that it had been ‘a record year’ for A-Level results and Welsh Education Minister Kirsty Williams went on to guarantee that no student would receive a grade at A-level lower than they had achieved in that subject at AS-Level. But as the level of criticism increased, on 17 August the standardised results were abandoned and replaced with teacher predicted grades (although, as was the case in Scotland, students could keep their standardised grades if these were higher). As expected, the revised results were much higher than those published on 13 August 2020. For example:

  • More than 40% of students were awarded A* or A at A-Level in 2020 in compared to 27% in 2019.
  • The revised AS results were also substantially higher, with 30% of students being awarded a grade A compared to 20.3% in 2019.
  • The GCSE grades published on 20 August showed that just under 75% of grades awarded were at A* to C compared to 62.8% in 2019, with more than 25% awarded at A and A*, up from 4% in 2019.

For more details of Welsh exam results see:


Standardised A-Level grades in Northern Ireland were also published on 13 August and revealed that the proportion of A-level grades at A and A* had increased by 2.3%. In 96.7% of cases the standardised grade was either the same or were within one grade of that predicted by teachers. 58% of the standardised grades matched teacher predictions exactly, while 5.3% of grades awarded were higher than teacher predicted grades. However, 37% of grades awarded were lower than teacher predicted grades, and this resulted in a public furore that saw Northern Ireland Assembly recalled from its summer recess. One politician said that students’ dreams had been ‘shattered’. Another said that parents were ‘worried about their children’s wellbeing and mental health’. The result was that on 17 August the head of Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum, Examinations & Assessment (CCEA) issued an apology and the Welsh Government announced that standardised GCSE (due to be published on 20 August), AS and A-Level grades would be withdrawn and the grades awarded would be the higher of teacher assessed grades or standardised grades. Examples of the effect on A-Level grades included the following:

  • 5% of students were awarded an A*, a 5.6% increase on 2019 results.
  • 9% of students were awarded A* – A grades, a 12.7% increase compared to 2019.
  • The overall A*- E pass rate increased to 99.9%.

For more details on A-Level grades in Northern Ireland see:

And examples of the effect on GCSE grades included the following:

  • Grades at A* and A were awarded to 37.1% of entries,up from 33% in 2019.
  • Almost nine in every 10 (89.4%) entries were awarded A* to C grades, up from 82.2% in 2019.

More details on GCSE grades in Northern Ireland can be found at:


On 13 August, Ofqual published the 2020 standardised A-Level grades for England. The grades revealed that:

  • 9% of all A-Level grades awarded were at A* (up from 7.8% in 2019).
  • 9% were awarded at either A* or A (up from 25.5% in 2019). These were the highest ever levels of A* and As awarded (and up from a previous record high of 27% in 2011).
  • 4% of all grades achieved were at A*-C (up from 75.8% in 2019).
  • Independent schools saw the biggest increase in A* and A grades awarded (up by 4.7% on last year compared with increases of 1.7% for academies, 2% for comprehensive schools and just 0.3% for colleges). This gave rise to allegations that the algorithm used for standardising grades was biased in favour of students from better off families. In actual fact it was biased in favour of small group sizes, which independent schools were more likely to have.

However, it was also revealed that around 39% of students (around 280,000) had been awarded grades lower than those predicted by their teachers. The relevant data was as follows:

  • 6% of centre assessed A-Level grades had been adjusted down by one grade.
  • 3% had been adjusted down by two grades.
  • 2% had been adjusted down by three grades.
  • 2% were increased by one grade.
  • 05% were increased by two grades.
  • 01% were increased by three grades.
  • 7% of centre assessed grades remained the same.

A copy of the document outlining the standardised grades can be found at:

A deluge of criticism and complaints followed the publication of the results in England. Disappointed students accused ministers of ruining their lives with one going so far as to say that she felt ‘her life was over’. Teacher unions described the process as a ‘shambles’ and opposition politicians called for an urgent public inquiry. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer insisted that, ‘Ministers must follow the lead of Scotland and allow teacher assessed marks to be accepted instead’.

Ofqual attempted to defend the standardisation process and said that if grades were awarded solely based on teacher predictions it would result in excessive grade inflation. Ofqual went on to say, ‘Our initial analysis of the CAGs (Centre Assessed Grades) showed that they were, in general, over optimistic and the combined effect would be likely to lead to overall national results that were implausibly high. If we had awarded grades based on CAGs we would have seen overall results increase by far more than we have ever seen in any single year. At A-Level we would have seen the percentage of A* grades go from 7.7% of grades in 2019 to 13.9% of grades this year, and the percentage of grades that were B and above increase from 51.1% in 2019 to 65% this year’. Ofqual added, ‘Across all subjects and all centres, 96.4% of final calculated grades are the same as, or within one grade of the CAG submitted. Only a small percentage were adjusted by 2 grades or more, where it appeared that the centre’s CAGs were very much higher than the historical results in the centre’. Ofqual also warned that, ‘…if teacher predicted grades are not standardised, this year’s results will be around 12% higher overall at A-Level and 9% higher overall at GCSE level than in 2019’.

On 14 August it was the DfE’s turn to try to defend itself. Using its blog the DfE attempted to ‘debunk misleading A-Level claims’ which included the following:

  • 40% of pupils have had their grades downgraded. The DfE said, ‘Grades that schools and colleges predicted that their students should receive were only ever intended to be one part of the process of determining grades, which would then be standardised to make sure that grades were fair for students across different schools and colleges and in relation to previous years. The circumstances this year meant that schools and colleges did not have the opportunity to develop a common approach to grading in advance, so it is likely that some centres will have been more generous in their judging, and others more severe. It would not have been fair to allow those that were most generous to get an advantage over others.
  • The Government doesn’t trust teachers. The DfE said, ‘The grading system this year puts teachers at the centre of the process…we asked them to set out the grades they think pupils would have got if exams had gone ahead, and in 60% of cases these have ended up being the grades that students were given, and in 96% of cases they were the same grade or just one grade different.
  • The standardisation model was introduced by the Government without consultation. The DfE said, ‘The standardisation model was devised by Ofqual. Ofqual consulted widely on it, receiving well over 12,000 responses, 78 of which were from groups identifying as a teacher representative group or union. More than 1,000 came from schools or colleges and almost 4,000 came from individual teachers. Several of the major teachers unions publicly supported the model’.
  • The standardisation model disproportionately affects pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. The DfE said, ‘Overall, Ofqual’s analysis shows that the standardisation model, which itself doesn’t differentiate between different types of school, affects all socio-economic backgrounds at broadly the same level…pupils from lower socio economic backgrounds are slightly more likely to have a difference between the grade proposed by their teachers and their final grades at C and above, but the difference is small and at A* and A, pupils from lower socio economic groups were actually less likely to have their teacher grade adjusted. …Ofqual has made clear thatthe attainment gap in final grades between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has remained stable this year, showing that no group of students has been disproportionately disadvantaged by the process. Not only have UCAS confirmed that more students than last year have had places confirmed on their first choice courses, more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds have also been accepted into universities this year than ever before, up 7.3% from last year’.
  • Pupils this year will be thought of differently to other years. The DfE said, ‘This suggests that standardisation means this year’s results are invalid compared to other years. Precisely the opposite is true. Standardisation seeks not only to make sure results are comparable between schools and colleges but between years. Without it, 38% of grades would have been A or A*. This would be a 12% inflation and could devalue results for this cohort in the eyes of universities and employers’.

The DfE blog can be found at:

However, all of this was to no avail. On 17 August, amid calls for the resignation of the Education Secretary for England, Gavin Williamson, the UK government in Westminster followed the lead of the other UK countries and announced that in England, standardised grades both at GCSE and A-Level would be withdrawn and replaced with either teacher predicted grades (or standardised grades could be retained if these were higher). Mr Williamson apologised for the stress caused but said he would not resign. Some believe that he will be kept on to take the blame not only for the A-Level and GCSE debacle but also for any problems with appeals and university places until he is replaced in the usual autumn cabinet reshuffle. Mr Williamson’s statement on the u-turn can be found at:

The U-turn resulted in grades in England being significantly increased. For example:

At A-Level:

  • The number of A* grades awarded almost doubled from 7.7% in 2019 to 14.3% in 2020.
  • Grades awarded at A and A* increased from 25.2% in 2019 to 38.1% in 2020.
  • The proportion of grades awarded at B or above rose from 51.1% in 2019 to 65.4% in 2020.
  • Grades awarded at C rose from 75.5% in 2019 to 87.5% in 2020.

At AS-Level:

  • The proportion of A grades (the highest grade) increased from 20.1% in 2019 to 27.1% in 2020.
  • The proportion of grades awarded at C or above grades rose from 56.9% in 2019 to 73% in 2029.

At GCSE level:

  • The proportion of awards at grade 9 (the highest grade) increased from 4.7% in 2019 to 6.6% in 2020.
  • GCSEs awarded at grade 7-9 (the highest grades) increased from 21.9% in 2019 to 27.6% in 2020.
  • GCSE grades awarded at 5 and above (a strong pass) increased from 53.5% in 2019% to 61.5 in 2019.
  • GCSEs awarded at grade 4 (equivalent to grade C or above under the previous letter grading system) increased from 69.9% in 2019 to 78.8% in 2020 (which means that nearly four in five pupils achieved the equivalent of a pass at grade C in 2020).
  • The proportion of grades at 1 (the lowest grade) and above increased from 98.5% in 2019 to 99.6% in 2020.

On 20 August the DfE published the full revised 2020 examination results for GCSE, AS and A-Level England, a copy of which can be found at:

Also, on 20 August, Ofqual published a useful student guide on how the new grades were awarded that can be found at:


Ofqual said that it had tested 12 different standardisation models before eventually selecting one based on ‘Direct Centre-Level Performance’. This involved the use of a complicated statistical model that took into account a number of factors, including:

  • The grade distribution of the exam centre (e.g. a college) for the years covering 2017-2019.
  • Teachers’ grade predictions and student performance in mock exams.
  • The position for an individual student within the rank for all candidates at the exam centre.
  • Previous exam results for individual students at the centre.
  • Results for the exam centre as a whole in previous years compared with those of other exam centres.

The aim, said Ofqual, was that the 2020 estimated results would reflect performance over the last 3 years. Ofqual also claimed that the model would ‘…address doubts about the consistency and fairness of teacher predictions, where those schools and colleges that submitted cautious and realistic grade estimates might lose out to schools and colleges that were ambitiously optimistic’.

However, use of the algorithm also meant that the larger the cohort or group size taking the exam, the less weighting teacher predicted grades had, and the more weighting the other components of the model had. For example, in the case of groups of 15 or more, teacher predicted grades had hardly any weighting at all, whereas only teacher predicted grades were used for groups of 5 or less. This benefitted schools and colleges that could afford to run smaller group sizes. It also meant that ‘talented outliers’, such as a bright students in low-achieving schools or colleges, or students in schools or colleges that were rapidly improving, were treated unfairly, while average students in high achieving schools and colleges were likely to be at an advantage.

The algorithm has now been abandoned, but the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR), which is the regulatory arm of the UK Statistics Authority, has announced that it will be conducting a review into how the algorithm was developed. The review will look at the statistical model used for standardised exam grading to ‘highlight learning from the challenges faced through these unprecedented circumstances’. It will not look at the implications of the model on individual results, nor will it take a view on the way to award grades in the absence of exams should this become necessary in the future. More information on the review is available at:


The Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA) says that there is evidence that results in both FE and Sixth Form colleges were disproportionately affected by the application of the algorithm. Research carried out by the SFCA covering 65,050 enrolments in 41 A-Level subjects, found that almost 20% of students were awarded a calculated grade lower than that of similarly qualified students who sat those subjects in previous years and that the standardisation model used favoured schools and colleges with small numbers of students sitting any individual A-level. The SFCA says that while the smaller group sizes found in private schools is the most likely explanation for the 4.7% increase in entries from private schools graded at A or A* compared with 2019, it also helps to explain why, FE and sixth-form colleges with larger group sizes saw their A and A* increase by only 0.3% compared with 2019. A copy of the SFCA research, which was published on 16 August can be found at:


As was the case with A-Levels and GCSEs, teachers of vocational subjects were asked to provide an assessment of student grades for as many technical and vocational examinations as possible, and to provide a rank order for students. These were submitted to awarding organisations (AOs) by exam centres (e.g. colleges) and then standardised. However, the standardisation process did not use the same algorithm as was used for A-Levels and GCSEs. In addition, the diversity and complexity of certain VTQs meant that in some cases, an alternative approach was necessary to determine students’ results. These included conducting paper-based online assessments, and in some cases, delaying the assessment altogether until later in the year (e.g. in gas fitting, where the qualification was also a license to practice). Details of the standardisation model used for VTQs was published on 17 August and can be found at:

On 13 August, Ofqual published a report analysing the grades awarded for Level 3 and 4 VTQs in England. These included applied general qualifications such as BTECs and Cambridge Technicals. The report used the data submitted by exam centres to awarding organisations in the period between 20 March and 31 July. Ofqual’s standardisation of these results revealed that grades awarded for Level 3 and 4 VTQs in the spring and summer of 2020 were ‘…broadly comparable with the results in previous years, and that attainment gaps have not increased across different demographic groups’. The report concludes that, overall, ‘…the awarding process in 2020 has not been majorly affected by the pandemic situation’. The silence of the public response to the report was almost deafening and was in stark contrast to the vitriolic response to the publication of the standardised A-Level and GCSE grades. Some might that this is further evidence that, in the eyes of parents and politicians, when it comes to the vocational/academic divide it is only the academic that really matters. The report giving an analysis of 2020 VTQ grades is available at:


As with other VTQs, BTECs were not subject to the same statistical moderation process as A-Levels and GCSEs. BTECs comprise modular units that students complete and are mostly assessed at regular stages, so prior to the March 2020 lockdown, students had already ‘banked’ several graded units for their qualification. These formed part of the evidence used to award grades for the externally assessed units and the final overall BTEC grades.

Following the announcement of the UK government U-turn to award grades based on teacher assessments, on 20 August, Pearson, the awarding body for BTECs announced that it was withdrawing Level 3 grades awarded on 13 August and belatedly asked schools and colleges not to distribute the Level 2 grades to students expected by them on that day. The reason for this, said Pearson, was that BTEC students had not been given the option of receiving grades based on teacher predictions and it wished to revisit the standardisation process used for BTECs in the light of the ‘staggering’ increase in A-Level and GCSE grades awarded. Pearson went on to say that it wanted more time to recalculate grades in the wake of concerns that Level 3 BTEC students could be placed at a disadvantage relative to A-Level students when applying for university places (about 20% of university students in England are accepted after studying only BTEC Nationals), and Level 2 students could be placed at a disadvantage relative to GCSE students when applying for places on Level 3 courses at college. A spokesman for Pearson said, ‘Following Ofqual’s announcement that A-level and GCSE students are to receive centre-assessed grades, we will be applying the same principles for students receiving BTEC results this summer to ensure that no BTEC student is disadvantaged’. The move affects 450,000 students, around 250,000 of whom received grades on 13 August, with the rest due on 20 August. Following the withdrawal of these grades, Pearson has now said that all revised Level 3 BTEC results will be ready by 25 August with Level 2 results being made available on 28 August. These dates are too early for us to include the final results in this newsletter, but we will include them in the September issue. The Pearson announcement can be found at the link below:


On 20 August, the exam board OCR announced that results in Cambridge Technical and Cambridge National exam results would also be based on teacher assessed grades.


Many students whose standardised grades initially turned out to be lower than predicted by their teachers lost their place at their first-choice university. Some lost their chance of a place at university altogether. Now that the grades predicted by teachers will stand, not only will more A-Level grades be awarded in total, there will be many more A-Levels awarded at the top grades. This in turn means that many more students will now meet the requirements for their preferred university place. Figures released by University and College Admissions Service (UCAS) prior to the abandonment of the standardisation algorithm reveal that a record number of students (358,860) had already been accepted onto a UK degree courses this year. This is a 2.9% increase compared with the same period in 2019. Of these, 316,730 had already been accepted at their first-choice university, an increase of 2.7% compared with the same point in time last year. However, more than 60,000 students who have now had their grades increased will now meet the grades for their first-choice place. To help ameliorate the situation and help universities accommodate even more students, the UK government has abandoned the student number cap that was to be introduced in England this year. Restrictions to the numbers of places on medical, dentistry and veterinary courses were also lifted. In addition, the UK government announced that universities will be given extra money to teach expensive subjects (such as science, technology and engineering). The UK government has also come to an agreement with universities, including Russell Group universities, that students can ‘self-release’ from their existing offer of a university place through UCAS and accept an offer from their first-choice institution.

All of this has probably come as a source of relief to university Vice Chancellors, many of whom were previously worried about a collapse in student recruitment (and an even more painful collapse in tuition fee income) in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic. The pressure to take on more students and to comply with social distancing requirements will undoubtedly be a considerable challenge for them, but many observers think that the combination of more fee income and extra government funding means that most vice chancellors (who probably know a thing or two about grade inflation themselves) will find a way.


On 6 August, Ofqual published its ‘Student Guide to Appeals and Malpractice or Maladministration complaints’ which outline the options available for students in England who were dissatisfied with their calculated A-Level and GCSE grades, with similar arrangements for appeals or complaints in respect of calculated VTC awards. Students could appeal their (through their school or college) and were also given the option to retake examinations. On 12 August, Ofqual added the option for students to use validated mock exam grades instead of standardised grades, if the mock grades were higher. All three options would be at no cost to the student or the college.

However, on 15 August, just as ‘no win no fee’ lawyers were gearing up for a tsunami of appeals litigation, the guidance was suddenly withdrawn. Then on 20 August, Ofqual published an amended version of the guidance on appeals and complaints that sets out the new arrangements for students to appeal or complain about the grades they have been given. The main points in the amended guidance are as follows:

  • Students can only appeal where administrative errors have been made. They cannot appeal against their Centre Assessed grade (CAG). Students will be able to re-sit their exams in the autumn if they wish to try to obtain a better grade.
  • The ability of a student to opt to use an earlier mock exam grade (where this was higher than either the CAG or the standardised grade) has been withdrawn.
  • Students can complain if they have concerns about unwarranted bias or discrimination or any other factor that suggests that a centre did not behave with care or integrity. They are required to raise concerns with their school or college in the first instance but could also take their concerns to the relevant exam board if this was thought to be necessary. Where there is evidence of malpractice or maladministration, exam boards are required carry out an investigation.

A copy of the amended guidance can be found at:


Ofqual has said that all exam boards must make exams available in all GCSE, AS and A-level subjects in the Autumn. In response, the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), which represents the AQA, OCR, Edexcel and WJEC exam boards have confirmed that an Autumn series of exams will go ahead and will be open to all students who would have taken GCSEs, AS and A levels this summer had the exams gone ahead. AS and A-level exams will take place between October 5 and October 23. GCSEs will take place between November 2 and November 23. Deadlines for entry are September 4 for AS and A-Levels and September 18 for all GCSEs except English language and maths, for which the deadline is October 4

With reference to exams scheduled for the Summer of 2021, it seems that Ofqual may be assuming that they will go ahead as planned. However, Ofqual has not as yet published details of how A-Level and GCSE exams should be organised next year if there are further outbreaks of Coronavirus (or if any new zoonotic pandemics reach the UK from ‘wet markets’ in the far east, or if viruses escape from leaky bio-labs). Nor does there seem to have been much consideration given to the plight of first year A-Level students and GCSE students due to take their exams in 2021, who will have missed a considerable amount of teaching during the lockdown, or for the students going to college in September who will be required to re-sit their maths and/or English exams in the autumn of 2020. And what happens if A-Level and GCSE exams do go ahead in the Summer of 2021 and the grades awarded through moderation turn out to be (as seems likely) much lower the record high grades awarded to students in the summer of 2020?

However, Ofqual has launched a consultation on arrangements for vocational, technical and other general qualifications in 2021 and is proposing a second version of its Extraordinary Regulatory Framework (ERF). This will be called the ‘Extended ERF’ and will require awarding organisations (AOs) to make arrangements to ‘…mitigate any longer term impacts of the current public health crisis’, as long as these ‘…do not undermine the validity of the qualifications’, and ‘…manage effectively the risks around malpractice’ They are not, however, required ‘…to make adaptations if they do not consider it to be necessary’. This approach is intended to apply to all VTQs, including BTECs, technical qualifications within T-Levels, and general qualifications other than GCSEs, AS and A levels. A copy of the Ofqual consultation document is available at:


Black Country comedienne, Doreen Tipton has used social media to announce the following:

‘Thanks to the last-minute government U-turn, my standardised grades have been overturned and I’ve been offered a professorship at Cambridge, teaching Welfare Studies and Rap Artistry in the 21st century. I intend to hold this post until the summer holidays and Covid restrictions are over, and then I shall resign on a full pension’.

‘Who is this Doreen Tipton?’ you may be asking, and what qualifies her to be such an expert on education? You can find out by watching the YouTube video at the link below:

Alan Birks – August 2020

As usual, the views and opinions expressed in this newsletter are not necessarily those held by Click CMS Ltd.
If this newsletter has been forwarded to you by a colleague and, in the future, you would like to be notified directly, you can register at the bottom of this page.

You can also access back issues via the website.

If you wish to unsubscribe from this newsletter, please click here

Copy link
Powered by Social Snap