Allowing teachers to award grades to pupils this summer is “as good a compromise as we can come to” following the cancellation of formal exams, Boris Johnson has said.
The prime minister described this year’s system for awarding A-level and GCSE grades in England – as well as some vocational and technical qualifications – as “durable” and the “right way forward”.
With the government aiming to avoid a repeat of last year’s grades scandal – which saw a moderating algorithm ditched after widespread complaints it unfairly downgraded pupils’ grades – teachers have been told to base students’ grades on a range of evidence.
This includes mock exams, coursework, essays and in-class tests.
Schools will also have the option of using assessment questions provided by exam boards to help decide what grades to award, although the assessments are not expected to take place under exam conditions.
It has been claimed the latest plans could cause “extremely high grade inflation”, with the government accused of risking unfairness in its efforts not to use an algorithm or have “exams by the back door”.
But, speaking on a visit to Accrington Academy in Lancashire on Thursday, the prime minister defended the new grading system.
“In an ideal world you would not have taken kids out of school because of the pandemic, we wouldn’t have been forced to do this,” he said.
“And in an ideal world we’d be continuing with exams as you normally have them, and the best place for kids is in the classroom and the best way to check on kids’ progress is with normal exams.
“But I think this is as good a compromise as we can come to. I think it will be fair, I think it will be durable and it’s the right way forward.”
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has been heavily criticised during the COVID pandemic, including over the closure and reopening of schools during and after lockdowns, as well as over last year’s exams controversy.
But Mr Johnson added that “of course” he had confidence in Mr Williamson.
He said, ahead of the reopening of schools to all pupils on 8 March, that students at Accrington Academy had “done very well, learning remotely, they’ve stuck with it”.
“It’s been productive and got better over the course of the lockdowns, but the best place for kids is in schools and they have got absolutely no doubt about it, the pupils themselves,” he added.
Mr Johnson spoke around the same time as Mr Williamson set out the details of the new grading system to MPs.
The education secretary told the House of Commons that children and young people had “paid a considerable price for the disruption of the past year”, which had “caused enormous damage to what should have been a carefree and exciting part of growing up”.
But he vowed that the government’s catch-up programme – including £700m in funding – and the “fair and robust” system for allocating grades this year meant “young people will be able to look forward to the next stage of their lives with confidence”.
Mr Williamson confirmed there will be “no algorithm” used to moderate grades this summer and that “grades will be awarded on the basis of teachers’ judgement and will only ever be changed by human intervention”.
Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green accused Mr Williamson of being “slow to act” and allowing weeks of uncertainty for students, parents, and teachers.
“This year’s exams were cancelled 52 days ago; for seven weeks pupils, parents, and staff have faced damaging and utterly unnecessary uncertainty,” she told MPs.
“Now, he claims to have solved the problem, but guidance from exam boards will not be available until ‘the end of the spring term’, meaning more weeks of anxiety for young people and their teachers.”
Conservative MP Robert Halfon, the chair of the Commons education committee, asked how ministers would ensure there will not be a “wild west of grading” this summer.
“Whilst I accept that it’s the least worst option that the government has come up with, my concern is not so much about having one’s cake and eating it, but baking a rock cake of grade inflation into the system,” he said.
The Education Policy Institute (EPI) think tank has also warned the government’s plans could cause “extremely high grade inflation”.
But Mr Williamson said exam boards would provide “quality assurance” and would also issue “grade descriptions to help teachers make sure their assessments are fair and consistent”.
Earlier, it was confirmed that Sir Jon Coles, a former director-general of the Department of Education, had resigned from exams regulator Ofqual in disagreement with the way grades are to be awarded this summer.
He recently claimed the government was “desperate not to be accused of having ‘an algorithm’ or of ‘exams by the back door'”, adding: “Focusing on this, rather than the actual goal – how we are going to be fair to young people – risks an outcome in August much worse than last year’s.”