Don’t get ‘too hung up’ on grades, says exams watchdog boss

The chair of England’s qualifications regulator has cautioned against getting “too hung up” on exam grades, warning that they may be a “rather thin representation” of standards.

“Actually we need to keep hold of the idea that there is more to life than grades,” Amanda Spielman said. “Grades are just a reflection of outcomes; they are not the outcomes themselves.”

The comments have been welcomed by heads’ leaders. But the ATL union has accused Ms Spielman, chair of Ofqual, of being “disingenuous”.

Her comments may surprise some because she heads an organisation with a key role of ensuring that qualifications are “sufficiently valid and trusted”.

Ofqual also has a statutory duty to “promote public confidence” in GCSEs, A-levels and other regulated qualifications; and has been responsible for the recent clampdown on grade inflation.

But speaking during a panel discussion on the economic importance of basic skills like literacy, Ms Spielman played down the value of exam grades in demonstrating that such skills had been acquired.

“We can sometimes get too hung up on grades,” she said. “A grade C, or whatever it maybe, is a rather thin representation of what we mean by a minimum level of literacy and mathematics.”

The Ofqual chair added that there was a need to find different language and ways of thinking about “minimum standards that don’t just zip across to the grade”.

ATL general secretary Mary Bousted said Ms Spielman’s comments on grades were correct, but accused her of being “disingenuous”.

“This is Orwellian double-think,” she said. “Ofqual’s whole trajectory is to be ever more precise about the reliability of the grade boundary and in order to do that they have to assess ever more narrowly.

“It expects employers and parents and others to understand that exams only test a narrow range of skills that are examinable and that there a whole range of other skills which are not tested that a pupil may have acquired.

“The problem with that approach is that is not how exam grades are used – the assumption is that if you have a grade C in English you will be functionally literate in a whole range of areas. It is a fundamentally dishonest position that ignores the reality of the way exam grades are regarded by society.”

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “I absolutely agree with the points [Ms Spielman] is making.

“The focus has been entirely on grades as a measure of accountability. But we need to be clear about what the learning outcomes are that we expect of the new qualifications as opposed to what proportion receive a particular grade.”

He added that the problem was that the focus over last few years had been on tackling “so-called grade inflation”.

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