Guide to AS and A level results for England, 2021

This year's outcomes explained after teacher-assessed grades

This year AS and A level exams did not take place because of the disruption to students’ education caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. It would not have been fair for exams to take place in the usual way. Instead, grades were determined by teachers based on a range of evidence. These were known as teacher assessed grades, or TAGs. Since the pandemic caused different levels of disruption across the country, many schools and colleges had not been able to teach all the course content. In response, students were only assessed on the content they had been taught while ensuring sufficient coverage of the curriculum to enable progression. Centres were given flexibility to decide how to assess their students’ performance, for example, through mock exams, class tests, and non-exam assessment already completed. This flexibility was to accommodate ongoing disruption to teaching including school closures and the need for students and teachers to self-isolate.

Schools and colleges put in place internal quality assurance processes. They were required to make sure at least 2 people were involved in each judgement and the head of each school or college had to sign off the grades. Teachers and senior leaders in schools and colleges have worked hard to make sure that judgements were made, quality assured and submitted on time. They also submitted examples of students’ work to the exam boards.

Exam boards put in place external quality assurance arrangements, checking each centre’s policy, reviewing the profile of grades submitted, and reviewing samples of student work. Where exam boards had concerns, these were followed up with the school or college and in some cases, teachers reconsidered their judgements and submitted revised grades.

These assessment arrangements are quite unlike those typically used. Normally students sit the same assessments, often exams, at the same time and under the same conditions, and they are marked and graded in the same way. Without the mechanisms usually used to secure standards over time and between students, outcomes this year look different from previous years – as we expected they would.

A level students are generally more able to study independently than younger students and have more study time for each subject. There has been an increase in outcomes at the top grades and stability at lower grades. This may be because the most academically able students were most able to study independently.

There are some small changes in the gaps between the average results of some groups of students, which are observed in normal years, which may reflect the impact of the pandemic on learning . It’s likely, however, that these changes would have been greater had we had not given teachers the flexibility to assess students only on the content they had taught.