Northern schools concerned over grading approach, warn education leaders

The Government has been urged to address the worrying concern of 'inconsistencies' with the proposed GCSE and A-level grading approach, and 'extremely high' levels of grade inflation amid warning that disadvantaged pupils in the North could be disproportionately affected than their peers in the South.

Unions have warned that teachers have only been given a “starting point” for assessments this summer as Ministers have yet to provide a clearly defined plan of how students will be assessed.

Teachers in England will help decide more than 1.2m pupils’ A-level and GCSE grades this summer, "on what they have been taught," after exams were cancelled for the second successive year due to Covid-19.

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Northern education and business leaders have said there is the risk that an already widening attainment gap between pupils in the North and those in London is set to widen further because there is such a high proportion of pupils with disadvantaged backgrounds across the region.

The Government has been urged to address the worrying concern of 'inconsistencies' with proposed GCSE and A-level grading approach, and 'extremely high' levels of grade inflation.

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The Northern Powerhouse Partnership, a lobbying group representing northern businesses, said that latest plans lack detail over how schools will be moderated.

Frank Norris, a special adviser on education and schools to the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, told The Yorkshire Post without the requirement to establish moderation between schools, there's a “real risk” that the government's approach will create grade inconsistencies.

He said: "This puts a huge amount of pressure on teachers if they are the sole judge of the grade awarded. This is particularly concerning where there is a small subject department.

Pictured, Frank Norris, a special advisor on education and schools to the Northern Powerhouse Partnership. Submitted picture

“There is also a strong likelihood that some parents or carers in certain communities will not be well-placed to challenge the grades awarded whereas others in more favourable circumstances will. "

Mr Norris added a preferred system would be to use centre assessment grades and ensure local schools work together to moderate results.

He said: "This approach would ensure all grades awarded are fully justified, challenged and moderated and would strengthen the evidence base schools could draw on when managing any complaints."

The call to action comes as this week England's exams regulator has acknowledged that teachers had "shouldered a huge burden" and that the Department for Education was "conscious of workload".

Pictured Education secretary Kate Green last year while visiting Torriano School in Camden, north London. Photo credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Ian Bauckham, acting chair of Ofqual, said teachers were being asked to "step up and do more than they usually have to do by playing a significant part in the determination of grades".

He added: "We need to make sure the exam boards give them the structures and incentives to do the job, they can see needs doing, well."

Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green stressed the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson “urgently” needed to put plans in place to ensure grades are "fair and consistent," between schools and pupils.

Ms Green told The Yorkshire Post: "The Government is turning a blind eye to concerns about grade inflation and still has no plan to address the different level of learning that has been lost by pupils.

She added Gavin Williamson must not simply "pass the buck" onto universities, colleges and training providers who will be accepting students with "different knowledge and skills" to one another and other year groups.

Universities fear that a repeat of last summer, when record levels of top A-level grades were awarded, will make it hard for admissions officers to distinguish between a bumper crop of qualified applicants.

Data for applications to higher education courses starting in autumn last year already showed a surge in demand for places at Oxford and Cambridge, as well as a 20 per cent increase in applications to UK medical schools.

Peter O’Brien, the director for Yorkshire Universities, a group representing 12 institutions in the region, told The Yorkshire Post: “It would be hoped that lessons would be learned from last year and every support is given to students who have had their A-levels disrupted, to enable them to complete those and access universities in a way that is fair and realises their particular ambitions."

Chris Kirkham-Knowles, the chair of the Professional Committee for the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), which represents principals and vice-principals in about two-thirds of schools, added the announcements made so far around grading this summer are a "starting point" but more guidance is needed.

He said: "It has been a significantly disrupted year from students and their teachers.

“In these far from perfect circumstances the decisions announced about how grades will be awarded this summer create a framework but these are only the starting point.

"Schools are now waiting for the detailed guidance, information and support from awarding bodies which will help to ensure that these grades are as fair and consistent as possible."

A Department for Education spokesman said: "The department, working closely with Ofqual and the sector, has put fairness and flexibility at the heart of this year’s plans to ensure all young people get to their next stage of education, training, or employment.

"Students will receive grades determined by teachers, who we trust to use their professional judgement, and students will only be assessed on what they have been taught.

"Schools, colleges, and exam boards will undertake checks on the consistency of teachers’ judgments, to help maximise fairness for all pupils no matter their background or where they live."

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