A-Level results are higher this year. Let’s stop relying on high stakes tests.

Gavin Williamson school
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Thousands of teenagers around the country have woken up to good news this morning as A-Level results were released after another disrupted year of learning.

Under teacher assessed grades, nearly 45% of pupils have been awarded As and A*s, an increase in the number of students achieving those top grades in 2020 and 2019. While it’s fantastic to see more 17 and 18-year-olds getting what they wanted, there are still many that have lost out – many of whom are disadvantaged students.

Under shaky government advice, it’s been another year of confusing and inconsistent grading across schools that has had an impact on pupil mental health. But with consistency and equal access to resources, ending our reliance on high stakes tests offers real potential for future generations of students.

Muddled guidance

After the chaos caused by 2020’s quickly-scrapped algorithm, it was clear a different path was needed for pupils due to take exams in 2021.

Ofqual backed exams as the “fairest” method for assessing students until January, when schools had to close again as coronavirus (Covid-19) cases rose. Education secretary Gavin Williamson announced on 6 January that teachers would assess students. The problem quickly became deciding how that would be done.

There was backlash over a letter in which Williamson mentioned potential plans for ‘mini exams’ to assess students. Williamson later set out more detailed guidance for teacher assessment, saying there would be optional assessment questions for teachers to use, though teachers could base grades on a range of evidence.

Teachers said they found the process of assessing stressful and demanding, particularly as proper guidance wasn’t published until the week before Easter. Many also felt like policies were constantly changing.

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The impact on pupils

As a result of the system, schools across the country employed completely different techniques for assessing students, with some using exams and others not. Schoolchildren were more likely to report struggling with their mental health this year, which reports say could also impact their performance significantly.

GCSE student Scooby Caesar wrote for The Canary: 

I have friends who are suffering more panic attacks this year than any other year. I am one of those people, too.


Students at private schools have seen a larger jump in their likelihood of receiving As and A*s than state school pupils.

Disadvantaged pupils were also far more likely to have a harder time learning this year. More than a quarter of working class people who applied to university this year said they hadn’t had a proper study space at home, compared to 16% of middle class students. State school students were also more likely to feel like they had fallen behind at school.

Private school pupils’ grades also generally tended to be based on a wider variety of assessment methods, and teachers at deprived schools were more likely to say they felt like they had been unsupported in assessing students.

Going forward

There is still inequality in the system. But in many ways, not confining pupils to stressful, one-off exams could be a step in the right direction for fairness.

In recent years, many have accused the education system of increasingly ‘teaching to the test‘ only. Evidence from approaches in other countries has shown that reducing dependence on such high-stakes testing can be better for students and reduce attainment gaps.

Disadvantaged students are more likely to feel a ‘lack of control over their learning‘, which more flexible assessment methods like coursework could help with.

A wider variety of flexible assessments would also cater to a wider variety of pupils, and put less pressure on them to pull everything off in one exam.

These higher results are great for students and should be celebrated. They also offer an idea of what a less restrictive education system that doesn’t perpetuate inequality could look like. Let’s replicate their success going forward without being pushed into it by a pandemic. And let’s do it in a consistent way that ensures equality and access to learning resources for all students regardless of their background. 

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons/Chris McAndrew & Flickr/Educators.co.uk

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