Coronavirus: qualifications

Published 07/08/2020   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

Due to the coronavirus, there are considerable differences in how qualifications are being awarded in 2020.

Results day will still fall as originally planned for A/AS level (13 August) and GCSE (20 August) students and candidates will receive a grade and a qualification. However, in the absence of exams, a new process has been needed to do this.

Given these unprecedented circumstances, the Research Service will not be publishing its annual blogs on results days, instead we have put together this blog that outlines the process.

The decision to cancel examinations in 2020

On the same day (18 March) as announcing the closure of schools, the Minister for Education, Kirsty Williams MS, decided that the 2020 summer GCSE and A level exam series would not go ahead. This followed discussions between the Welsh Government and both the regulator, Qualifications Wales, and the awarding body, WJEC.

The Minister said from the outset that learners due to sit their GCSE and A level exams this summer (predominantly Year 11 and Year 13 respectively) would be awarded a ‘fair grade’, ‘drawing on the range of information available’.

Welsh Government guidance issued in late March said that grades would be ‘calculated using a range of available evidence including for instance, work done to date, mock exams and teacher assessed grades’. The government also stated its ‘aim that no learner will be disadvantaged’.

The Minister told the Senedd’s Children, Young People and Education (CYPE) Committee on 7 July:

The decision to cancel this year's examination series was devastating, but I believe, as we've seen the pandemic unfold, it was the right decision to make.

Fairness to the class of 2020 and maintaining credibility

Qualifications Wales is responsible for determining arrangements for how qualifications are awarded. Under the Qualifications Wales Act 2015, although it is an independent regulator, Qualifications Wales must have regard to Welsh Government policy as directed by Ministers.

The 2015 Act requires Qualifications Wales to act in pursuance of two principal aims:

  • ensuring that qualifications, and the Welsh qualification system, are effective for meeting the reasonable needs of learners in Wales;
  • promoting public confidence in qualifications and in the Welsh qualification system.

The regulator has to ensure that the arrangements put in place for 2020 meet both those priorities. This means ensuring that the 2020 cohort have opportunity to achieve the grades they would have under examination conditions. But also, without undermining confidence in the value of qualifications awarded , particularly any perception they were handed out without due rigour.

This imperative was reflected in the Ministerial Direction made under the Qualifications Wales Act 2015 that Kirsty Williams MS issued in April. This requires Qualifications Wales to have regard to a number of factors in the awarding of qualifications this summer. The Minister said she wanted to:

‘maintain the robustness and credibility of our qualifications system, whilst delivering the fairest approach for our learners ensuring that they are not disadvantaged by circumstances outside of their control’.

The Minister told the CYPE Committee on 7 July there had been no ‘trade-offs’ between these two principles, commenting:

I believe that the system that has been put in place does marry the interests of individual students and the integrity of the system overall.

How will qualifications be awarded in 2020?

In the absence of exams this year, schools and colleges (‘centres’) have submitted the following to WJEC (the awarding body for the vast majority of general (academic) qualifications in Wales):

  • a grade for each their students;
  • a ranking for each student (to differentiate between learners accorded the same grade); and
  • a declaration of integrity from the headteacher/principal.

Qualifications Wales has stated [PDF 440KB] that the grades submitted by centres:

…must reflect the most likely grade a learner would have achieved if they had sat their exams this summer and completed any non-exam assessment. Therefore, while performance in mock exams, classwork and other formative assessments may be used, we have been clear that centre assessment grades for each learner should be a holistic professional judgement, balancing the different sources of evidence available. [underlined is our emphasis]

WJEC will then ‘standardise’ the grades submitted by centres, using a statistical model developed in conjunction with Qualifications Wales.

On 29 June, following a consultation exercise, Qualifications Wales decided on a set of aims for this statistical standardisation model and the appeals process available to learners and their centres. Qualifications Wales said (PDF 413KB) the model would:

…combine a range of evidence, including expected grade distributions at national level, results in previous years at individual centre level, and the prior attainment profile of learners (including attainment in qualifications and units that have already been awarded). [underlined is our emphasis]

The standardisation model has two main steps, following the centres’ submission of grades for their students:

  • Step 1: Calculate grades for learners in each centre. WJEC will calculate a set of grades for each exam centre, such as a school.
  • Step 2: Allocate grades to individual learners. WJEC will allocate the set of grades from step 1 to individual learners using the rank order provided by the teachers in the centre.

Further information on what is meant by statistical standardisation and the model that is being used is available from both Qualifications Wales and WJEC.

Why is standardisation considered necessary?

In explaining its decisions (PDF 440KB), Qualifications Wales said there is always a need to find the right balance between a range of important considerations, stating:

‘fairness to this cohort of learners cannot be the only consideration, but it will be an important one’.

An important consideration for the regulator, given its second principal aim (to promoting public confidence in qualifications) – is to maintain grade stability, i.e. to prevent drastic unwarranted changes in attainment rates between years. Whilst the system of awarding qualifications should be able to reflect genuine improvement in schools or higher performance by candidates, results need to remain comparable and fair between annual cohorts.

This is normally achieved through the setting of grade boundaries for scores in exam papers, which is not possible this year. For example, if students generally appear to have found an exam paper particularly easy or difficult then a higher or lower raw score respectively than previous years might be required to get an A grade etc. Qualifications Wales states (PDF 413KB):

Unless 2020 outcomes are broadly similar to other years, there would be an unfairness to learners from other year groups. It is important that the credibility of learners’ grades are not undermined this summer and can stand up to public scrutiny. [underlined is our emphasis]

Qualifications Wales recognises that final grades awarded to learners this year ‘will often differ’ from those submitted by their centres.

Implications for learners?

The unprecedented circumstances surrounding this year’s awarding of qualifications have raised questions about fairness.

The Sutton Trust has looked at the impact the different process of awarding qualifications could have on certain students. The standardisation model places emphasis on a centre’s previous results (before the allocation of grades between learners at each centre. This may mean that an individual’s result is partly determined by the track record of the school or college they attend.

There may also be implications of the standardisation exercise undertaken by the WJEC, particularly if many of the grades schools and colleges submit for their students are adjusted downwards. Following an analysis of the preliminary centre assessment grades in England by FFT Education Datalab, it has been reported that up to one third of grades submitted by centres in England could be ‘downgraded’ by the standardisation model used there. The Department for Education has said that it is ‘not true’ that there will be a will be a blanket downgrading of all students’ grades by up to 33 per cent. In Scotland, where exams have also been cancelled due to the pandemic, examination result were published on 4 August.

Questioned by the CYPE Committee (7 July), the Minister said:

what WJEC and Qualifications Wales have done here is to ensure that there is a system that allows for consistency in the judgements that have been made by centres, recognising that even within centres some grades may have been overpredicted and other learners might have had their grades underpredicted.

Can learners appeal their grades?

Following consultation, Qualifications Wales decided candidates will not be allowed to appeal to WJEC regarding the grade their centre has submitted for them or the ranking they have been given.

However, a learner will be able to ask their school or college to check whether they made an error when submitting centre assessment data for them.

Schools and colleges will be able to appeal to WJEC, on the learner’s behalf, on the grounds that it used the wrong data when calculating grades, and/or incorrectly allocated or communicated the grades calculated. WJEC is to provide to a centre, upon request, the information used to calculate a result issued to a learner.

Individual learners will be able to appeal within their centre against its decision to not to approach the WJEC for information that would be needed for an appeal. They can also appeal to their centres about the centre’s decision not to appeal to WJEC on their behalf.

Private candidates (those who didn’t study at a school or college) may appeal directly to WJEC.

Further information on appeals against grades awarded in 2020 is available from Qualifications Wales (PDF 98KB) and WJEC.

Vocational qualifications

All apprentices, and significant numbers of further education learners undertake vocational qualifications.

Whereas most general qualifications in Wales are awarded by WJEC, vocational qualifications are awarded by over 100 awarding bodies working across the UK. Qualifications Wales said in April that ‘to ensure consistency for learners taking these qualifications, the same approach will be taken for learners in Wales as that set out by Ofqual’the regulator in England.

Following consultation, Ofqual set out an approach that will see awarding bodies place their qualifications into one of three categories: ‘calculate, adapt or delay’. Learners can use an online tool to understand what category their vocational qualification falls.

Qualifications Wales has provided Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) as well as a blog from its Chief Executive on the way forward for vocational qualifications in 2020.

Qualifications in 2021

Whilst exceptional arrangements have been put in place for qualifications awarded this year, consideration has also been needed to the impact on pupils and students part-way through qualifications due to be awarded in 2021.

The Minister told the CYPE Committee on 7 July:

I believe at this current point in time it is in the best interests of all learners, if at all possible, for the exams in 2021 to proceed in the normal way, albeit with some modifications to take into consideration the loss of learning time and classroom time that will have been experienced. It is absolutely my hope and it is my belief that the examination series next summer needs to go ahead, but we need to recognise that some modifications will be necessary for that to be fair.

On 15 July, Qualifications Wales announced requirements it is placing on WJEC. These are aimed at making appropriate changes to GCSEs and A levels for learners taking exams in summer 2021. Further information is available in this letter from Qualifications Wales (PDF) to schools and colleges, and from this FAQs collection from WJEC.

Article by Michael Dauncey and Sian Hughes, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament

We’ve published a range of material on the coronavirus pandemic, including a post setting out the help and guidance available for people in Wales and a timeline of Welsh and UK governments’ response.

You can see all our coronavirus-related publications by clicking here. All are updated regularly.