Geoff Barton said the return to pre-pandemic grading in England will feel like a ‘bitter pill’ for many students receiving their A-level results.
The Government must talk to employers about changes to grading standards following the pandemic to ensure students are not “disadvantaged” in job applications, a headteachers’ union leader has urged.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said the return to pre-Covid grading levels in England will feel like a “bitter pill” for many students receiving their A-level and vocational and technical qualification (VTQ) results as they faced pandemic disruption.
Mr Barton added that students in disadvantaged circumstances were “adversely affected” during the pandemic years and he called for “everything possible” to be done to support these young people.
Tens of thousands of pupils across England, Wales and Northern Ireland are due to find out their A-level and VTQ exam results on Thursday.
In England, Ofqual has said this year’s national A-level results will be lower than last year but they are expected to be similar to those in 2019 – the year before the pandemic.
Schools minister Nick Gibb has said exam results need to return to pre-pandemic levels this year to ensure the qualifications carry “weight and credibility” with employers, universities and colleges.
It comes after Covid-19 led to an increase in top A-level and GCSE grades in 2020 and 2021, with results based on teacher assessments instead of exams.
Last year, grading in England aimed to reflect a midway point between 2019 and 2021.
Mr Barton said: “It is imperative that the Government engages with employer associations and provides advice and guidance for employers to use over the changes which have taken place to grading standards between 2020 and 2023.
“This is vital to ensure that employers understand how different cohorts of students have been graded during and after the Covid pandemic and guard against students being disadvantaged in applications for jobs both now and in the future.”
He added: “While universities are steeped in the mechanics of different qualification systems and will adjust accordingly, this is not necessarily the case with employers who will have differing levels of knowledge about these changes.
“The Government must work with employer associations to disseminate clear information upon which recruiters can easily draw in assessing candidates.”
The cohort of students who are currently awaiting their A-level results did not take GCSE exams and were awarded results determined by their teachers in 2021 – which was a record year for top grades.
In the Sunday Times, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said students receiving their results must expect lower grades than last year so universities and employers “understand the distinction between grades when recruiting”.
Mr Barton said: “The changes to grading standards were driven by the unique circumstances of the pandemic, and the glide back to 2019 standards is part of a return to normality.
“But this will feel like a bitter pill to many in this year’s cohort as they also suffered disruption during the pandemic and those in disadvantaged circumstances were adversely affected in particular. It is essential that everything possible is done to support these young people.”
In Wales and Northern Ireland, exam regulators have said they do not plan to return to pre-pandemic grading until 2024.
In Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) has taken a sensitive approach to grading and modified course assessments this year.
Figures released by the SQA last week showed the pass rate for exams in Scotland is down from last year, but it remains above 2019 levels.
Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Institute of Student Employers, said: “We agree with the ASCL, that it’s important that employers understand that student grades are returning to 2019 standards this year.
“We would like to see more clarification from Government on what this actually means, which would help employers ensure assessment practices are relevant to the situation young people are in.”
A Department for Education (DfE) spokeswoman said: “We have engaged extensively with stakeholders since the pathway back to pre-pandemic grades was decided two years ago.
“It’s vital that grading returns to normal to make sure qualifications maintain their value and credibility.
“Ofqual has built protection into the grading process this year to recognise the disruption that students have faced, meaning they will be just as likely to achieve a particular grade this year as they would have been before the pandemic.
“We are making almost £5 billion available to help pupils to catch up including over £1.5 billion for the National Tutoring Programme and 16-19 Tuition Fund, which have supported millions of students in need of extra support.”
An Ofqual spokeswoman said: “Back in September 2021, Ofqual announced a two-year plan that would see grading move back to similar levels to 2019, even if the quality of students’ work was a little weaker due to the disruption students have faced.
“This means that a student who would have achieved, say a B grade in A-level Geography before the pandemic, is just as likely to achieve a B this year.
“Ofqual has engaged with employers’ associations to let them know in advance that grades would be lower this year and similar to the pre-pandemic levels that they are familiar with.
“It’s important that we get back to normal so that grades set young people up for college, university or employment in the best possible way, and help them to make the right choices about their next steps, whether that’s further study or moving into the world of work.”