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GCSE and A Level Examinations 2021. The Battle for Fairness and Grades has Already Begun. Advice for Students and Parents. The Interim Guide.

Background: GCSE and A Level Examinations 2021. The Battle for Fairness and Grades has Already Started. Advice for Students and Parents.

Stated at some (considerable) risk of simplification, the situation UAE British curriculum students are facing this year is as follows:

  • IGCSE and International A Level examinations will go ahead as planned.
  • GCSE and A Level examinations, at least as traditionally taken, have now been cancelled and are to be replaced with something yet to be determined (see below)


What (exactly) Happened in 2020 …

Worth noting that this is a substantially different situation now facing many British curriculum students in the UAE than that faced by students in 2020.

Last year:

  • IGCSE and International A Level examinations were cancelled and replaced by Centre Assessed Grades
  • GCSE and A Level examinations were cancelled and replaced by Centre Assessed Grades

Whatever the merits of the decision, or otherwise, international and home British qualifications were determined in broadly the same way.

In 2021, international IGCSE/A Level and GCSE and A Level will be decided differently.


Many schools, in which both international and home versions of GCSE and A levels are sat, will be facing very different challenges.

Does this matter? We come back to this question later. 

In 2020, the decision to award results based on Centre Assessed Grades was hard fought. It is not inaccurate, in most cases, to say that a battle was fought between schools, students and teachers, on the one hand, against the Examination Boards and British government on the other.

Originally, GCSE and A Level grades were supposed to be decided by an algorithm. The algorithm would take all the recommended grades decided by school and teachers and recalculate them so that grades overall, and within individual subjects, did not rise above those achieved by students in 2019.

The algorithm was used for a single reason: to stop grade inflation. The shared view of government and examination boards was the fighting grade inflation was more important than fairness or individual students achieving the right grades – and only examinations would enable them to shore up their defences against schools, students and parents.

The algorithm was finally rejected, however, because it resulted in very clear cut (unparalleled) unfairness, inconsistency and inaccuracy.

  • At A Level, for example, students on average achieved grades around 40% lower than that which schools decided that those students deserved.
  • 3% of students saw their final results reduced by two grades.
  • Many, before the volte face of the British government, OFQAL and the Examination Boards, were denied entry to universities that they had been expected to be able to attend based on their historic performance.

The impact of the algorithm was catastrophic for many students. As importantly, the algorithm itself was seen as faulty in the way that it benefitted different types of schools, students and subjects over others.

The arguments that erupted also brought into sharp focus another fact many parents were unaware of. Qualifications primary purpose in society is to decide which children will get the top jobs in any given field and which will be able to attend the best universities. Exams, fundamentally, with a limited pool of opportunities, exist to decide the life chances of students.

Their accuracy in deciding the relative intelligence or ability of students, or their capacity to be successful in later life, was secondary to this purpose. Exams, it was realised, were a tool used to decide the life chances of children, rather than reflecting them. Exams decide which young people will be constrained in their opportunities in later life and those that will be promoted.

Many argued, as they always have, that exams measure only the ability of students to complete examinations – and not potential, ability, intelligence – or indeed anything else. They are, for many a blunt and dangerous tool. No one argues with the fact that exams only reflect, theoretically if not practically in all cases, what a student knows, understands and can do at one point in time.


The impact of 2020 on Grades 

Analysis of the impact of using Centre Assessed Grades has now been completed by the UK government and OFQUAL, the regulator.

At A Level, the number of students receiving an A* in all their subjects was close to double the number of students in 2019, and over double the number of students in 2018.

The greatest increase for A level was at grade B followed by grades A and C. Although outcomes increased in all subjects, the extent of the increases were also not consistent. For example, at A level, the increase in outcomes at grade A was greatest in ‘other’ modern foreign languages and Music and smallest in Mathematics.

Bottom line:

For both GCSEs and A levels, subjects in 2020 were generally graded more leniently than in 2019 at the overall subject level and at individual grades.

  • For GCSEs, based on the final grades, on average, subjects in 2020 were graded nearly three-fifths of a grade more leniently at the overall subject level than in 2019. At grades 4, 7 and 9, these were about three-quarters of a grade, one-third of a grade and one-tenth of a grade respectively more lenient.
  • For A levels, based on the final grades, on average, subjects in 2020 were graded about half of a grade more leniently at the overall subject level than in 2019. At grades C, A and A*, these were about three-fifths of a grade, one-third of a grade and one-fifth of a grade respectively more lenient

What does this mean in practice?

It’s hard to be definitive:

  • Some argue that the results achieved by students in 2019 are fairer and more accurate than those achieved in previous years as the views of teachers, who logically know children best, are properly integrated in the final calculation of grades which students achieve.
  • Others argue that the grades achieved are arbitrary and less accurate because they depend on multiple subjective factors including the degree to which many schools, understandably or otherwise, were able to game the system to benefit their students.

At stake in all this was a question mark, moving forward, of whether teachers and schools should, now, be trusted to be part of the way that results are calculated for students. The bigger picture question is whether fighting grade inflation is a necessary evil, regardless of the casualties.

The one certainty is that more students achieved higher grades last year. 2020 baked in grade inflation, for good or bad, accurately or inaccurately, rightly or wrongly.

This does not mean that anything at all should be taken away from the achievements, against all odds, of any student in 2020. 


The State of Play Facing Students in 2021

The answer, as to whether teachers and schools should play a role, moving forward, in deciding the results that their students achieve, has been answered. They shouldn’t.

The fundamental assumption, that examinations are best, has not changed as a result of the decision to cancel examinations in 2020 as many hoped. In fact, the positive view of examinations as a means to decide the future of students has now become more entrenched:

“[O]ur strong preference, and government policy, was for exams to go ahead [in 2021].

Exams and formal assessments are the fairest way of assessing what a student knows, understands and can do.”

Simon Lebus, Interim Chief Regulator, Ofqual, January 2021.

By definition, what Mr Lebus does not say, but which is implicit, and the real point, is that the future of young people should, all things being equal, continue to be decided exclusively by examinations at 16 and 18. Teachers, schools, fairness and justice should be kept as far away as possible from any role in deciding the future of students.

Our view on examinations can be found here.

As above, what this means, at least as it stands currently, is that:

  • International GCSE and A Level students will sit examinations as usual
  • ‘Home GCSE and A level students will have their grades decided by a different system, as yet to be exactly defined, but ostensibly based on Centre Assessed Grades.

However, Centre Assessed Grades for ‘Home’ GCSE and A Level will, this year, be decided very differently to 2019.

A warning has been issued already to students and their parents on what will replace examinations in 2021:

“What they [the Grades and system for awarding them in 2021] cannot do is take account of what someone could have potentially achieved, had the pandemic not happened. Grades and assessments are measurements, after all.

No assessment arrangements can take account of all the different ways that students have suffered from the pandemic and missed differing amounts of teaching and learning time.”

Simon Lebus, Interim Chief Regulator, Ofqual, January 2021.

What does this mean? It is a warning shot across the bough.

Do not expect the results that students are awarded in home GCSE and A levels in 2021 to be “fair.” UAE students and parents should expect, instead,  a new concerted effort to prevent grade inflation.

A consultation process will make the final decision on the mechanism that schools must use to decide the results of students  by mid February.

However, we do know already that:

  • Students are likely to be required to sit modified examinations, set by the exam boards, this to limited the ability of teachers to influence final grades.
  • These will in most cases be sat in schools in examination conditions, as they have historically.

The one key difference is that results will be published much more quickly, probably in July 2021.

Whilst teachers will be able to use coursework as part of their decision making, they will be restricted to deciding grades based only on ‘evidence of the standard at which their students are performing’ and not on the grades they would be expected to achieve.

“The consultation for GCSE, AS and A levels explores the possibility of exam board-set papers.

This [will] provide an external benchmark for exam boards when implementing their quality assurance arrangements and also make appeals more straightforward.

We need to make sure that, as far as possible, what a student may get in [the UAE] will be the same as a student with an equivalent level of attainment in Brighton.

Without exams, we won’t achieve the same degree of reliability and validity as in normal years.

There won’t be the same checks and balances in the system this year, and it is likely to be the case that overall outcomes this year will look different from 2020 and previous years.”

Simon Lebus, Interim Chief Regulator, Ofqual, January 2021.[Explanation added.]


Details on the Consultation on how to decide 2021 results for GCSE and A Level can be found below:



Details on the consultation on how to decide 2021 results for BTEC can be found below:



The way that technical qualifications will be awarded is more complex than simply imposing examinations by another name. Whatever is decided here, will impact on students studying the International Baccalaureate Career-related Programme which, in the UAE, is universally founded on British BTEC. 

In all cases, what we do not know, when schools and teachers have submitted their grades to the exam boards for ‘external quality assurance’, is the degree to which Examination Boards will moderate/interfere with the grades awarded by teachers and schools.

The stakes are high. Mike Lambert captures this brilliantly:

“So, fast forward twelve months and ask teachers to submit grades this year in light of last year’s debacle and you will witness the single biggest live example of game theory ever seen in education.

Every school across the world will submit the highest grades possible for every one of their students, simultaneously transferring to Ofqual the burden to prove that students would not have received these grades, something which is unfalsifiable.

Given the choice between the potential for the most significant example of brinksmanship in the history of education (CAGs 2.0) and an imperfect examination system, which option would you choose?

Mike Lambert. Headmaster. Dubai College. 

The short answer, we believe, is that it would not be unreasonable (and many would argue necessary and a duty), for schools to precisely “submit the highest grades possible for every one of their students.” Parents and students will, arguably rightly, expect nothing less.

For parents, schools and teachers, surely, the success of students is infinitely more important than issues of grade inflation – and particularly given the circumstances of Covid 19.

The degree to which schools are constrained in this will in no small part be decided by the freedom they are given in setting examinations. Logically they should be able to set the subjects examined. Whether deliberately, or otherwise, this will mean that students will know, to a greater or lesser degree, the questions before they are asked. This surely must be the case because no one exam paper can capture the different ways and subject areas children have learned in schools around the world as a result of the pandemic.

At stake is honesty.

The UK government is claiming that teachers, not algorithms, will decide this year’s grades. For that to be true, OFQUAL cannot impose standard examinations by the back door, nor interfere in the decisions made by teachers and schools.


Bottom Line: What does all this mean for Students and Parents in 2021?

First, no one expected the international exam boards to stand their ground and continue requiring all students to sit for International GCSE and A levels as if nothing had happened.

Some question their financial motivations for doing this.

Many argue it is an unsustainable, illogical and strategically foolhardy position to have taken. Few argue that it carries the risk of hurting the life chances of many students.

Our view is that it is a hugely damaging decision, but, as it stands, it seems that the International Exam Boards have wrongly closed their ears to arguments against changing their position to fall in line with home GCSE and A levels.

UAE International GCSE and A Level students should therefor expect to be examined this year.

Schools and teachers, for international GCSEs and A Levels, will have no role at all in ensuring that the individual challenges faced by students in the UAE are recognised. They will not be able to protect students.

After so many years of squabbles about the relative difficulty and value of international and home GCSE and A’ Levels too, this decision, to entrench divisions between the two sets of qualifications, sets a divided system back further. The fallout from this will be measured in the years to come.

For GCSE and A level students the advice is, notwithstanding the differences they face from their international GCSE and A Level counterparts, simple:

  • Work your socks off to ensure that every single piece of course work, and home work, which you submit is of the very, very highest standard. You must give your schools and teachers every single possible piece of ammunition they need to put forward the very highest possible grade for you.
  • Do not expect your teachers to know how able you are, show them. They will be universally on your side, but they must protect their school and themselves with evidence.
  • Expect, as things stand, to be required to sit examinations. However, also expect to have a very clear idea of what exactly you will be examined on. You should not expect to be going in blind as you would in a normal year.

Until mid February, when OFQAL finally decides how all this is going to work, this is about the limits of the advice anyone can give you.

The real decisions, however, will be made behind closed doors when OFQAL has to decide whether to take on your schools and teachers recommendations in the name of grade inflation. Will they choose to push Centre Assessed Grades down? Will they ignore the recommendations of teachers and schools?

We would expect them, after last year, to be very, VERY, wary of interfering, however much they assert the opposite today.

This is why it is imperative that every student in the UAE gives everything, absolutely everything, to demonstrating their abilities to their teachers now and to not take their ‘feet off the pedal.’

Teachers and schools are on your side. They want to help you. OFQAL, the examinations boards and the British Government, as above, have different motivations – and do not. 

As Mike Lambert, Headmaster of Dubai College, predicts, schools are, then, about to embark “on the single biggest live example of game theory ever seen in education” to fight your corner.

To do this successfully, however, they need you to play your part and give them the ammunition to fight.

The comments of OFQAL and the UK government demonstrate that the battle has already started, and is not to come.

Exams or no exams, the stakes for your future in recognising this, and not waiting for a clarity that will almost certainly never come, have never been higher.

It is a battle of David and Goliath. What faces schools, teachers and students also has all the demands of a highly charged game of chess.

But this is not a game.

The life chances of students are at stake.

So too, the intrinsic fairness, or otherwise, of examinations is also quite profoundly being put under the microscope.

It is battle that students, teachers and parents, united together, can, and must, win.

© 2021. All rights reserved.

Notes for parents:

(1) Mike Lambert’s analysis of the situation facing schools and students, written before the decision to cancel GCSE and A Level examinations, can be found here.

(2) Analysis of the grade inflation caused by the way that grades were awarded in 2020 can be found below:

Summer_2020_results_analysis_-_GCSE_AS_and_A_level_171220 (2)






About The Author
Jon Westley
Jon Westley is the Editor of and UK. You can email him at jonathanwestley [at]

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