10 things we now know about Ofqual-regulated exams next summer

by Tom Middlehurst, ASCL Curriculum, Assessment and Inspection Specialist

This week, Ofqual and the DfE published their responses to consultations on adaptations to GCSE maths, physics and combined science in 2023; permanent changes to GCSE languages assessments; and the contingency plans in case exams can’t go ahead next summer. These were the final pieces of the jigsaw that were needed to get a clear view of what exams will look like in 2023. So, here’s the picture:

1. Grading will be back to 2019 levels, but with an important safety net
Back in September, Ofqual confirmed what was expected: that the overall grade profile in 2023 GCSEs, AS and A levels in England will return to something closer to 2019 after 2022’s transition year, which saw grades at a midpoint between 2019 and 2021 TAGs.

However, importantly for students and parents to understand, grades will be protected and will not be lower than in 2019. Because of the ongoing impact of the pandemic, exam boards may conclude that the performance of candidates in exams next summer is poorer compared to pre-pandemic years. But even if that’s the case, the overall mark distribution will not be lower than in 2019. In other words, generally speaking, a student has the same chance of getting an A*, a C, a 9 or a 5 as in 2019.

The approach to assessed components in VTQ assessments will mirror the approach to general qualifications.

2. There is no optionality or advanced information
Again, as expected, the DfE confirmed earlier this year that the optionality of topics in GCSE English literature, history, ancient history and geography has been removed. Likewise, there will not be advanced information in any subjects about what is or isn’t on the exams.The key message here for teachers and students is: you have to teach, learn and revise the whole course as normal, as any topic could come up in the summer.

3. Formula sheets will continue in GCSE maths, combined science and physics
This week, Ofqual and DfE confirmed that formula sheets will continue to be used in summer 2023 exams for GCSE maths, combined science and physics. The exam boards have not yet published the formula sheets, but it would be a very safe bet to use 2022’s formula sheets in maths and science lessons, and for any mock assessments.

4. GCSE language assessment will not assess students on unfamiliar vocabulary
The changes made to GCSE MFL exams will now continue in perpetuity, from 2023 into the future. Specifically, Ofqual has removed the previous requirement for exam boards to assess candidates on unfamiliar vocabulary, meaning that all the words students are assessed on should be in the vocab lists, or else glossed in the exam paper.

5. Schools and colleges are required to undertake mock exams under exam conditions
Unlike last year’s contingency arrangements, which advised schools and colleges to conduct three assessments over the course of the year, the guidance for 2022-2023 is that centres hold one mock assessment for candidates taking exams next summer for the purpose of contingency.This should, where possible, be done under JCQ exam conditions.

  • Students should not know the questions in the assessment beforehand.
  • Students should work independently and without assistance (other than as required for a reasonable adjustment).
  • Students should not have access to books or revision notes.
  • Students should be supervised during the assessment, though centres do not have to use external invigilation; and this may be done in the classroom.
  • Students should be assessed under timed conditions
As much as possible, schools and colleges should use their existing assessment plans and arrangements to conduct these mocks, providing they meet the criteria above. Centres are, of course, able to hold more than one mock assessment per subject if that is what you would usually do. Likewise, centres can use this assessment for dual purposes: both to prepare students for summer exams and other formative assessment; and for the purpose of creating contingency evidence.

Where possible all students in a cohort should be assessed at the same time, or else different assessment materials should be used.

6. Schools and colleges should mark work in line with Ofqual’s grading policy
When marking evidence towards TAGs in 2021, and in the contingency arrangements for last year, teachers were advised to err on the side of generosity when a student’s work was on the borderline between two grades or bands. This year, the advice is to return to 2019 levels, which may mean if a student is performing at the lower end of a band, they should be graded with the lower grade.

Teachers should mark students’ work in line with published mark schemes from the exam boards.

Students may be told their grades – again in a change to the advice last year – though schools and colleges must make clear that this is not the grade they would necessarily receive if exams are cancelled. 

7.    Schools and colleges should retain the evidence from this mock
As with last year, centres should retain either the original or copies of students’ work, and either physically or electronically. Providing the original or a copy is retained, teachers can give students back their work (either original or copies), for formative assessment purposes.

There is no guidance on how long this should be retained for, but schools and colleges should expect to retain it until at least the end of the exam series.

8.    Students should be told that exams are likely to go ahead, but their mock grade may be used if they are cancelled
There is a clear message from both DfE and Ofqual: exams are expected to go ahead. This should be a message shared with students. However, where a mock assessment is being used as a contingency should exams be cancelled, students should be told this is the case.

We know that members are concerned about the impact of too much high-stakes testing on students’ mental health and wellbeing, and will be mindful of this issue when explaining the purpose of the mock. 

9.    The exam timetable reflects current Covid policy, but is more resilient than in pre-pandemic years
The proposed timetable for the summer series reflects that the 10-day isolation policy which informed 2022’s timetable is no longer applicable. However, JCQ had positive feedback that spacing out the first and last exam in a qualification was a sensible approach, and built resilience into the system. Therefore, the gap between the first and last paper in most qualifications is around seven days.

There will be some further changes to the VTQ assessment timetable as 'Operation Golden Orb' has confirmed the additional bank holiday for the coronation on Monday 8 May when some VTQ assessments were scheduled. No general qualification exams were due to be held on that day. Primary assessments have been pushed back by a day, meaning the final KS2 exam will now be on Friday 12 May.

10.    2021 CAGs did not show a statistically significant impact on equalities
The very final piece of the jigsaw was the publication of Ofqual’s equalities impact analysis on 2022 exams. Their conclusion was that, compared to 2021 TAGs, there was no ‘material’ change. 

In some ways this is surprising, but good news. It does, however, seem to undermine the argument that linear exams are the “fairest” form of assessment, and open a debate about how we might better, and more fairly, assess students in the future.

Tom Middlehurst is ASCL Curriculum, Assessment and Inspection Specialist
Posted: 01/12/2022 15:19:15