Grade boundaries could be more generous in some cases, with a lower score across papers needed to secure a particular grade, but examiners’ generosity could be more wide-ranging, exam boards have said.
Exams regulator Ofqual has previously announced that grade boundaries will be set roughly between 2019 pre-pandemic levels and boundaries in 2021, when teacher assessment was used to set grades.
The news comes after exam boards published the details of topics that will appear in exams as part of changes to 2022’s GCSEs and A-levels to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on grades.
The advance information is not intended to reduce the amount of content pupils need to be taught or tested on.
In all subjects – with the exception of English literature, history, ancient history, geography and art and design – pupils will be given notice about the topics to be covered in this summer’s exams.
The information is designed to aid their preparation and help focus their revision.
Materials will not give so much detail about the likely questions that the answers can be pre-prepared or learned by rote, exam boards have advised.
Question papers have been designed as they normally would be.
The advance information will not always list every topic covered because boards are concerned that could lead to excessive revision of one topic.
However, boards have said that, in some subjects, all topics covered will be listed to help learners prepare.
They will then be able to prioritise those topics when they revise, particularly if they are using past paper questions.
For some text-based subjects, such as English language, the advance information may include the genre or period that unseen texts used during exams will be drawn from.
Subjects such as art and design, which are only assessed through coursework, will not feature any advance information.
For “synoptic” questions, designed to cover the entire range of a syllabus, there will be no advance information because pupils could otherwise be disadvantaged through limiting their revision focus to a few select areas, exam boards said.
Such questions are designed to test pupils’ broader knowledge so it is feared that providing advance information would be restrictive.
The materials will only be available on the exam board websites, with learners warned not to look elsewhere in case they find inaccurate or misleading information.
In GCSE maths, combined science and physics, pupils will be given equation sheets to reduce the number of equations they need to memorise.
In GCSE English literature, history, ancient history and geography – subjects where advance information will not be released – pupils will study and be examined on fewer topics.
Exam boards said they would release the advance information in February rather than earlier in the academic year, as headteachers had called for, so pupils did not cover a narrow curriculum.
In January, Ofqual’s chief regulator Jo Saxton said the changes to this year’s exams would not advantage more able pupils, following concerns the lack of advance information for “lower-tariff” questions carrying fewer marks would advantage more able pupils.
Sarah Hannafin, senior policy advisor for school leaders’ union NAHT, said the advance material “should now provide teachers and students some help on where to focus their teaching, revision and exam preparations”.
She added: “Advance information is not a simple list of what is assessed in the exam; the information is more complex, covers only high tariff questions and might relate to only a particular exam paper or section of it, with different approaches between specifications and subjects.
“We need to remember this is new to teachers so it will only be over the coming days that we learn whether they believe it will be sufficient to counter the levels of disruption which students have faced due to Covid.
“We would urge everyone to recognise that students have endured during one of the most pivotal period of their lives which can be pressurised even in ‘normal’ years.
“They simply want a fair shot at success in their exams this summer.”
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “Exams are the best and fairest form of assessment, and we firmly intend for them to take place this summer, giving students a fair chance to show what they know.
He added: “We know students have faced challenges during the pandemic, which is why we’ve put fairness for them at the forefront of our plans. The information to help with their revision published today, as well as the range of other adaptations, will make sure they can do themselves justice in their exams this summer.”
Ofqual chief regulator Dr Jo Saxton said students had shown “resilience” during the pandemic and that Ofqual knew “they are seeking certainty”.
“Advance information published today is one of the ways we are supporting students to have that certainty as they prepare to show what they know and can do,” she added.
“We are also ensuring there is a safety-net for students with a generous approach to grading,” she said.
Dr Saxton said that examiners would be asked to be more generous when setting grade boundaries, to provide a safety net for students who could otherwise just miss out on their grades.
But although the grading guidelines are set to be more generous than they were before the pandemic, students will not have as much leeway as last year.
The Liberal Democrats said this meant that compared to 2021, 90,644 children could lose out on the top grades.
The party’s analysis suggested 24,524 GCSE pupils would miss out on grade 7,8 or 9, and 66,120 A-level students missing out on As or A*s compared to the grading system used last year.
The party called for a hybrid approach, which would use a combination of traditional exams together with input through teacher assessments.
Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey, said: “Students taking exams this year have had their entire course affected by the pandemic – from the start through to the finish. Lowering grades this year is arbitrary, senseless and heartless when the pandemic is still ongoing.
“Our children have worked as hard as they can in incredibly difficult circumstances and their grades should reflect their hard work, instead of being artificially reduced by a thoughtless Government.”
Dr Saxton said: “The Government is fully committed to exams going ahead this summer, and does not expect that to change except in the very unlikely case of a public health emergency which would prevent students being able to physically sit exams,” she said.
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said the release of the advance information had come “too late”.
She said that NEU members had called for the release of advance information at the start of the academic year, and the information being released now would create additional stress for students.
“If one of the topics you see on the list today is one you couldn’t cover at all or in as much depth through no fault of your own, due to Covid-related disruption, what do you do now?” she said.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We look forward to seeing the information being published to help students focus their revision for this summer’s exams.
“It is extremely important that this really does help to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on learning, and we will be studying it in detail to ensure that it provides fairness to students of all ability levels.”
An Ofqual spokesperson said: “As well as the other adaptations discussed in the Joint Council for Qualifications technical briefing today, there will be generous grading.
“This will be delivered after marking is complete and when senior examiners set grade boundaries. It is likely to mean grade boundaries will be a little lower than they might have been in a normal year, but grade boundaries are never set in advance, and so we cannot be precise at this point in the year.”