The return to pre-pandemic GCSE, AS and A level standards

The new academic year is well underway, and learners across Wales are busy as they continue, or begin, studying for their qualifications. In this piece, Philip Blaker, Chief Executive at Qualifications Wales, talks about returning to pre-pandemic assessment arrangements in Wales this academic year.

Those that are taking qualifications in 2024 will be keen to know more about what will happen this academic year as we return to usual arrangements.  

GCSE, AS, A level and Skills Challenge Certificate qualifications that are taken in November 2023, January 2024 and next summer will return to pre-pandemic approaches, completing the planned journey we have undertaken since alternative arrangements were put in place for the pandemic. This means that WJEC will not provide advance information ahead of the examinations. Nor will there be a broadly midway grading policy, as there was in 2022 and 2023. 

Why are we returning to pre-pandemic arrangements for qualifications? 

From 2019 to 2023, we had several years of alternative arrangements due to the pandemic. During 2019-2020 and 2020-2021, exams were cancelled and learners received grades determined by their school or college. In 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 we saw the return of exams and formal assessments, but with support in place for learners to reduce the content needed to be covered or give insights into the main topics that would be examined and a generous grading policy. 

The broadly midway grading approaches of the past two years provided a mechanism by which standards could be re-established over time.  However, we could not maintain standards in the normal way. Returning to usual arrangements helps us to protect the long-term value of learners’ grades and maintain confidence in our qualifications system. 

Our approach for this academic year aligns with approaches across the rest of the UK, which is important to ensure qualifications hold the same value as those taken in other parts of the UK.  

 What does this mean in terms of grading? 

In 2024, grade boundaries will be set to achieve (as far as is possible) outcomes no lower than 2019 – assuming there are no significant changes in the make-up of the cohort. WJEC, the awarding body, will implement this through its awarding process, when awarding committees recommend grade boundaries at key grades. Statistics will be used to support committees as they start their judgement of learners’ work by suggesting a range of grade boundary marks that would avoid substantial drops below pre-pandemic years. 

What does this mean in terms of ‘standards’? 

Performance is what learners know, understand and can do to achieve a particular grade. Over the last two years outcomes have not been benchmarked against pre-pandemic standards as they would normally. Although recovery is happening, there is still a risk that learner performance in some subjects has not fully recovered since the pandemic. If learner performance is weaker in some subjects in 2024 compared to pre-pandemic years, that could mean that outcomes (grades) at a national level would fall below those from 2019.  

The use of statistics will help to protect learners from outcomes that are significantly lower than 2019. This statistical protection isn't designed to put a cap on achievement, it means that there is some protection in place for learners, to provide a safety net. This is important for fairness as we know that the pandemic has had a long-term impact on learning for some. 

What does this mean for schools and colleges? 

At the start of this term, we wrote to all schools and colleges with details of the arrangements and grading approach for this academic year. It is important that schools and colleges are aware of the grading approach for this year, to support their communications with learners and decisions on predicted grades for university applications.  

We know that schools and colleges often use past papers to help learners with revision and mock exams. Therefore, it's important to remember that grade boundaries were lower than might usually be the case during the last two academic years to achieve outcomes that were slightly higher than pre-pandemic, and to take that into consideration when using past papers from 2022 and 2023 to assess learners’ attainment and prepare them for this year’s exam series. 

Schools and colleges are also busy supporting learners with their choices and applications for higher education courses this term. Teachers produce predicted grades for learners as part of their UCAS applications.  

It can be difficult for teachers to predict grades accurately. UCAS data shows that predicted grades have been increasing and in summer 2022 and 2023 the predicted grades submitted to UCAS were at their highest level. We would expect that this year’s predicted grades would be much closer to those seen in pre-pandemic years, in line with UCAS guidance.   

By Philip Blaker, Chief Executive of Qualifications Wales