We need fairness for students taking A-levels, GCSEs and vocational qualifications in 2021. The disastrous handling of the summer 2020 exam results must never happen again. #FairGrade2021

Read our December 2020 update

December 2020 update

On 3 December, Government announced a “package of measures” which ministers say will ensure fair grades for students taking GCSEs A-levels and vocational qualifications in 2021. This will have come as a relief to educators and students who had been waiting anxiously for clarification. But it is far from clear that what Government has announced will be enough to ensure fairness for students.

The Government says: “A new expert group to look at differential learning and monitor the variation in the impact of the pandemic on students across the country.”

The NEU says: The Government has had months to come up with and communicate proposals on how the differing levels of disruption students have experienced due to the pandemic will be taken into account in the grades they receive. It is unacceptable that, at this late stage, ministers are continuing to kick the can down the road on an issue which is causing serious stress to students and their teachers across large swathes of the country right now. Those students whose education has been most disrupted are more likely to come from poorer backgrounds, to not have access to devices or internet to help them learn outside school and to live in a more crowded home, meaning they don’t have a quiet place to work. None of what the Government has announced addresses these issues: students deserve full clarity now.

The Government says: “More generous grading than usual, in line with national outcomes from 2020, so students this year are not disadvantaged.”

The NEU says: Moving the grade boundaries may help some students achieve higher grades, but it will not address the fact that students across the country have suffered vastly different rates of disruption to their education because of the pandemic. In addition, the vastly different approach being taken in England, compared to changes being made in other UK nations, will add to students’ fears about unfair comparison to Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish students competition for university places and jobs. 

The Government says: “Students receiving advance notice of some topic areas covered in GCSE, AS and A levels to focus revision.”

The NEU says: The union’s proposal went a step further than this - advocating optionality of topics for exams, so students would be examined on content they had been taught and not on content they had missed due to coronavirus. While giving students advance notice of topics to be covered in exams will undoubtedly allow them to focus their revision time, it’s crucial that this information is provided to educators and students soon to make the most of what study time is left. So far the Government has not clarified when schools can expect to receive this information. Clarity is also needed on whether topic areas will be released for all subjects, or just some.

The Government says: “Exam aids - like formula sheets - provided in some exams giving students more confidence and reducing the amount of information they need to memorise”

The NEU says: This will no doubt be welcome. But there is a lack of clarity about what will be provided in which subjects and this measure, of itself, will not be sufficient to mitigate the disruption students have suffered to their education.

The Government says: “Additional exams to give students a second chance to sit a paper if the main exams or assessments are missed due to illness or self-isolation.”

The NEU says: Sadly, the same problems will apply to second exams as to first. What Government should be putting in place is a robust system of nationally moderated centre-assessed grades, rather than relying solely on exams at all costs. A back-up exam paper can only ever cover part of the course, whereas teacher assessment can award a grade based on everything a student has done.

The Government says: “In the extreme case where a student has a legitimate reason to miss all their papers, then a validated teacher informed assessment can be used, only once all chances to sit an exam have passed.”

The NEU says: A robust system of nationally moderated centre-assessed grades should be the Government’s starting point for a Plan B, as a fairer way to award grades

The Government says: “Even if students miss one or more exams due to self-isolation or sickness but have still completed a proportion of their qualification they will still receive a grade.”

The NEU says: Special consideration for students who are ill or isolating is an important consideration, however it will not resolve the key issue of previous disruption to pupils’ education being taken into account when awarding grades.

The Government says: The Government also previously announced a 3-week delay to the summer exams to claw back additional teaching time.

The NEU says: Some students have missed many weeks of in-school learning just this term due to the pandemic – a 3-week delay is inadequate compensation for this.

The Government says: “For VTQs awarding organisations will also be able to reduce the number of optional units that are assessed. This will free up time to focus on teaching students all the knowledge and skills they need to progress to the next stage of their lives.”

The NEU says: This will come as welcome reassurance to students and teachers who feared vocational qualifications would be overlooked. The NEU will be working with awarding organisations to ensure steps are taken to ensure fairness for these students.

Fairness for students taking A-levels and GCSEs in 2021


In its management of this year’s A-level and GCSE grading process, the Government failed in its duty of care towards our young people.

Ministers showed a lack of trust in teachers and leaders, whose assessments of their students’ potential were discarded in favour of an Ofqual algorithm combined with the past results of schools and colleges. For the majority of students, grades were initially awarded with no reference to, or evidence of, their individual achievements. Young people do not deserve to be treated as numbers in an algorithm.

This must never happen again. Our young people have already suffered so much due to the coronavirus pandemic. It is vital that the Government takes urgent steps to ensure students due to sit A-level and GCSE exams in 2021 are treated fairly and that none are disadvantaged. Allowances must be made for the time they have missed in school and contingencies put in place in case of further school closures due to coronavirus.

We call on the Government to:

  • Reduce the content assessed in GCSE and A-level exams next summer. Students starting the final year of their GCSEs and A-levels in September 2020 have missed months of schooling: the exams they sit in the summer of 2021 must reflect this lost learning time. They must be slimmed down by making some topics optional to allow for the different order in which content will have been taught across the country.
  • Work with teachers and school leaders to develop a robust national system of moderated centre assessed grades in case there is further disruption to exams next summer because of a second spike in coronavirus or local lockdowns.
  • Commission a thorough independent review into assessment methods used to award GCSE and A-level qualifications in England, along the lines announced by the Scottish government. The current over-reliance on exams increases student anxiety and fails to give a fair reflection of what students can achieve. All options should be considered to ensure that young people are rewarded for their achievements, supported to fulfil their potential and not held back due to their background.