GCSE and A-level results have seen record grade inflation – here’s why that doesn’t matter


Exam results are upon us. After the 2020 debacle which saw exams cancelled due to COVID and the first set of algorithm-generated results quickly overturned following complaints of unfairness, what teachers and young people really needed in 2021 was confidence in the grading system.

The process for awarding marks was duly announced in March. And this time, as Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has reiterated, for one year only there would be no algorithm. Instead students would receive marks based on teacher estimates.

Now, results day just wouldn’t be the same without the perennial discussion of grade inflation, with commentators comparing the proportion of top grades being awarded. In pre-COVID times, this is seen to undermine the value of the qualifications in the long term. In 2021, though, concerns about grade inflation are misplaced, for three reasons.

The method by which grades have been determined this year differs fundamentally from previous years. Further, as we attempt to make an economic and societal recovery from the pandemic, seeing more young people get the grades they need to get into universities and colleges is to be celebrated, as the guarantee of a well-qualified future workforce.

Finally, and most importantly, given the stress and disruption young people have experienced since COVID hit our shores in March 2020, their achievements should be celebrated, not questioned.

Talk of grade inflation inaccurate and unhelpful

In December 2020 Williamson confirmed that, contrary to the first year of the pandemic, exams in England would not be cancelled in 2021. Guidance subsequently issued by the government’s office of qualifications and examinations regulation (Ofqual) and the department for education detailed the range of evidence from students that would be used to determine their grades. This included school-based exams, coursework and portfolios.

The guidance specified that this range of work was to be marked against criteria provided by exam boards, and that the marking would then checked by the school, with exam boards carrying out quality-assurance checks on that marking. This is the system schools have followed.

Students have been awarded the grade their work deserves and teacher judgements have been checked for quality. This is called criterion-based assessment because the assessment is based on work meeting criteria.

By contrast, GCSEs and A-levels in previous years, including the first round of results that were retracted in 2020, were norm-referenced: the results were compared to other students. In this system, students’ result depends on their ranking within the cohort, rather than their ability to meet the assessment criteria. This aligns this year’s A-levels with BTecs, which have always been criterion-referenced.

Each system, of course, has advantages and disadvantages but the outcomes should not be compared. Student marks this year have been awarded under an approach that is different but no less robust.

There is therefore no reason to suggest that they are less valid than in previous years or that there is a long-term problem with grade inflation. As with so many aspects of life during the pandemic, things are just different this year.

Student success is good for everyone

Record levels of success have been reported, with as many as 45% more students getting top A* grades at A-level according to some reports, and a smaller rise in the number of students achieving A*-C grades too.

Given these results, it seems likely many students will be able to take their places at universities and colleges. This is a good thing for the economy, especially when youth unemployment is at such worryingly high levels.

Places on medicine courses have been in particular demand and the government has already had to add 9,000 extra places for the coming year. Given the pressure our health service is currently under, it is hard to view more medical students as a problem.

Teacher training has also seen strong growth in numbers. It is inspiring that so many young people are choosing to train for careers in public service. In this way, universities and colleges will play a vital role in pandemic recovery by ensuring young people can be successful. This, surely, is a win-win situation?

Young people deserve praise for their achievements

Despite the best efforts of teachers, schools and support groups, there have been many barriers to success for the class of 2021. Pupils studying for their BTecs and A-levels this year have been uniquely disadvantaged. They have done at least seven of the 20 months of their two-year courses online during lockdown.

Often in their bedrooms and at kitchen tables, away from their usual support network, many found this strange and isolating during what is a crucial period in their education.

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds have been particularly badly affected by this. Some have struggled with poor access to technology and spaces to learn.

Student mental health has been badly affected by the increased isolation, enduring uncertainty and severely restricted access to help during lockdown. We can only hope that this this set of circumstances will never be repeated.

It is even more important to celebrate the achievements of young people this week. We need to congratulate them and support them on their way, as the future healthcare workers, teachers and business leaders we will all be depending on for years to come.

Author Bio: Helena Gillespie is Professor of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education and Academic Director of Inclusive Education at the University of East Anglia