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Can next year’s GCSEs and A levels 2021 really be fair?

14 Nov 2020

Can next year’s GCSEs and A levels 2021 really be fair?

By Mark Richards

The government’s announcement that exams are to go ahead in 2021, but with a three-week delay to give students more time to prepare was met with a mixed reaction from teachers. Although broadly welcomed, many have pointed out the apparent injustice of running the exams as normal. Firstly, because of the amount of time lost to lockdown in the spring and summer; and secondly, because schools face more disruption in the months in the run up to the exams.

As some students and classes are made to self-isolate, school attendance will fluctuate. Indeed, studies have already shown that school attendance has been disproportionately affected for students in the north of the country.
Then there’s the nagging feeling that students from disadvantaged backgrounds have been further disadvantaged because of the disruption caused by the pandemic. 


Are exams ever really fair?

The argument is that exams will not be a level playing field next summer because of all the disruption that has occurred within education. That much is true, but the counter argument is possibly that exams are never really fair anyway, so 2021 won’t actually be any different. After all, so many different variables exist. 

Is it fair that some students attend ‘outstanding’ or ‘good’, while others go to schools that ‘require improvement’ or are ‘inadequate’? No, it isn’t.

The quality of schools is variable.  The quality of teaching is variable too. Not only that, the support that children receive from parents/carers about their education varies up and down the country.

Then there’s the issue of the exams themselves. Are they easier for students who are more academic? Are they a test of memory and ability to ‘remember stuff’ rather than an opportunity to apply skills? Can the marking of exams ever be totally trusted and reliable?


‘One size fit all’ never fits everyone

The problem is that anything with a ‘one size fits all’ approach will always be flawed. Exams are no different. It is impossible to create a system that is completely fair. Alternatives to terminal examinations, such as modular exams taken throughout the duration of a course – or a return to coursework – come attached with different kinds of unfairness.

You could argue that these approaches are less unfair than terminal examinations, but that’s about it. They will still be unfair. No system will ever suit all students or be completely free from potential problems.

The problem is at the heart of the issue lies an uncomfortable truth. At best, all exams can ever be is a rough guide and snapshot of how an individual student compares with their peers on a given day.

Is a student who is awarded a 3 at GCSE really that far behind as student who gains a 4? It’s the high stakes that we attach to these grades that is more of a problem.

A young person who has supportive parents encouraging them will always be at an advantage, regardless of the assessment system that schools use. The fact is that all assessment methods are flawed.

Of course, this doesn’t detract from the fact that students and teachers will find this academic year a greater challenge than it may have been in previous years.

However, many people would agree that a fool-proof solution simply doesn’t exist.




1- New 9-1 GCSE Grading System

2- Are GCSEs no longer fit for purpose?

3- Ofqual issues warning about higher tier GCSE grade boundaries

4- GCSE results expose unfairness to disadvantaged pupils

5- Are the new GCSE grades making it difficult for teachers to predict a student’s likely results?



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