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11 August 2021updated 27 Aug 2021 2:23pm

Why the “problem“ of Covid grade inflation is not such a big problem after all

A frenzied debate is already underway about how best to respond to next year's grade deflation.

By Stephen Bush

The future of A-levels, and indeed of examinations full stop, in England has been thrown into doubt following this year’s bumper crop of A and A* grades, which has seen close to half of all A-level students awarded an A or A*. 

[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]

Because exams had to be cancelled for a second successive year, this year’s grades have been devised on the basis of assessments made by schools and teachers. Schools were provided with no central guidance about how to award grades and in practice there was little prospect that by awarding lower grades you would be doing anything other than disadvantaging your own pupils relative to others. (Sam Freedman explained the mess in greater detail in February.) 

The biggest increases in A and A* qualifications came in private schools. In many ways “inflation” is the wrong way to see the problem: because of the lack of meaningful central assessment or guidance, there is no point of comparison to be had between an A-level student at one school or another. 

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[See also: How England’s school catch-up funding falls £13.6bn short]

So, what now? It’s likely that next year’s students will be able to take their exams: and, therefore, next year’s students may have considerably fewer A and A* grades, and lower grades overall, than this year’s cohort.

A frenzied debate is already underway about how best to respond to next year’s grade deflation. One solution being floated is to move towards numeric grades for A-levels, just as we have moved to numeric grades for GCSES (which would award, for example, a 9 for an A*, and 8 for an A). 

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​​​​​The reality, however, is that the “problem” of Covid grade inflation is perhaps not such a big problem after all. If you have been awarded GCSEs or A-level grades during the pandemic, everyone knows – such as employers and universities – that your results and final years at school took place during an extraordinary time. 

In many ways, agonising that the graduating class of 2020 and 2021 will have different grades to that of 2019 or 2022 is a bit like worrying that the number of mature students was larger in 1945 than it had been in 1939: a one-off event had taken place and sometimes the sensible solution to a one-off event is just not to panic about it too much. It’s been a extraordinary 18-months, where the government has had to issue grades in a slightly different way, in the same way it has had to engage with a higher level of government borrowing and debt. 

[See also: The row over school spending shows the age of austerity isn’t over]