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When will exams get back to normal?

12 August 2021

8:47 PM

12 August 2021

8:47 PM

It wouldn’t be credible to say that this year’s A-Levels grades are comparable with 2019’s: almost 45 per cent of entries got an A or A* compared to 25 per cent two years ago. But, as I say in the magazine this week, the problem is that you can’t simply snap back to normal next year.

Many of those who got their grades this year won’t go to university until next year. This — and the fact that the education of those in the year below has been disrupted too — means it wouldn’t be fair for exams to return to normal next year. That would leave the class of 2022 competing for university places against those who have benefitted from 2021’s more generous system. Already the government is considering levelling the playing field for next year, including telling pupils in advance about the topics in the exams.


But if it does take several years to get back pre-Covid grading, universities will almost certainly respond by introducing their own entrance tests. Elite universities running their own entrance tests would create other issues. It would benefit the schools and sixth forms which regularly send large numbers of pupils to top universities.

The idea of abandoning the current grading system is rapidly rising up the agenda. Moving to a system of grading A-levels on a numerical scale of 1 to 9 is popular among senior figures in the Department for Education. It would avoid the prospect of waiting years for grade inflation to wash out of the system. Such a change could not be introduced straight away, but it would be possible to have it in place for the 2023 exam season.

A further attraction is that it would bring A-level grading into line with GCSEs, which have already moved to the 1 to 9 system. This transition is seen as a success in government. One benefit is that it allows more differentiation at the top: a 9 works as, in effect, a double A* grade.

Of all the options that the government has to get grade inflation in check, a move to a 1 to 9 grading system is the least worst.

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