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Opinion: Exam grades - real results?

By Jimmy Beale, Co-founder and Director of APT

I write this on the Sunday at the end of the week when school’s ‘academic results’ dominated. In England, A-Level results were published on Tuesday, with GCSE’s hot on their heels on Thursday. A gap of two weeks between these results is the norm, but the summer of 2021 saw things being done differently and, oh boy, hasn’t the media gone to town with the impacts of that difference.

We’ve enjoyed predictable debate about grade inflation, questions around teachers being too generous in their decisions on pupil assessments, discussion about the application process for higher education being fit for purpose, and even opinion about whether the Education Minister should still be in post. The attainment gap between private and maintained schools has widened and there has been much talk of how that goes against attempts to ‘level up’ social inequality at a national and local scale. Opinions are divided on so much, and the flames of division have been fanned by certain sections of the media. Soundbites have done the job, facts have been sparingly used and as a new week kicks off, we move on. Academic results dominated the news for a moment, but now we move on.

Where did last week get us? I don’t wish to rehash the reasons for grade inflation, or the disparity between results in the independent and maintained sectors. I’m about looking forward and seeing whether sustained change might result from the debate – can we, and should we hope that positive moves will be made?

I’m in the game of impact. I work with parents, assuring them that the right independent school is out there for their child. I’m into seeking out schools which will add value to their child’s life, both now and in the future – in layman’s terms, that means I believe that any child, when placed in the right educational setting, will achieve more than they might have done elsewhere. The best school for the individual is a school that will have a positive impact upon learning, confidence and personal growth – it is different for every child and no one school can, or should, say that they are the best place for every learner.

We’ve developed an assessment system to allow clients to understand more about their child’s current academic standing and their potential – a vital tool as we help families to choose a school. The APT is also used by schools as a benchmarking tool to establish exactly where a child stands academically when they join and is useful in predicting how they might perform in national exams in years to come. But the exam results for 2020 and 2021 have created a real problem for benchmarking, as rampant grade inflation means that the efforts of the exam cohorts of the Covid years will always be considered anomalous: it will be seen as unfair to use them as data for meaningful comparison. In the past few days we have seen plenty of schools shouting loud and proud about their “best results ever”, but for the majority that is meaningless, as the national uptick has been so significant. The benefit of using league tables has been further undermined – the sooner that parents realise that such lists do nothing but reflect the degree of selectivity for admissions of a particular school, the better. Schools in the upper echelons of any league table of A Level results only seek applications from brilliant, academic children. They produce brilliant academic results. Wow. Hit me with that surprise stick. But do such schools add value, and if they say they do, can they prove it?

The best school for the individual is a school that will have a positive impact upon learning, confidence and personal growth

I want to get under the skin of schools and find out what really makes them tick. That involves far more than academic results and quality classroom teaching. Why do certain schools seem to get the best out of individuals and what is is that they do to add value to their pupils? I’m worried that the debate about the impact of benchmarking and value-added data is going to take a step backwards in the short-term, and I think that is very bad news indeed for our independent education system.

An interesting idea that came across my radar this week – rip up the grade system and start again. If GCSEs work on grades 1-9, why can’t A Levels do the same? If a such a change was made, we might at last be able to properly scrutinise how schools are performing, and whether they are being as impactful as they say in their websites, and as their league table positions infer.

And let us not forget the children who have been right at the heart of the results debate. Let us celebrate all that they have achieved and commend them for working hard in difficult and uncertain times. Let’s not give them the impression that their efforts, their amazing grades and their ability to show what they can achieve is of any less merit than in years past. However, let us hope that their experience in Covid affected years is used to stimulate debate that will lead towards meaningful change for the next generation of exam takers.

This article was first posted on The English Education website, August 2021 (


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