Student journeys

Exam grades for summer 2021 in England and the impact on students applying to HE

Last year, the government saw a backlash from students, teachers and parents as their commissioned exam grade algorithm came under criticism. Understandably, there’s been huge speculation and anticipation surrounding the final assessment strategy for 2021 and following a two-week public consultation, the wait is over. But what does it all mean for students that have applied or will be applying to university?

Consultation context

During the consultation (which set out to capture the views of parents, carers, teachers, students, HE providers and employers) it was proposed that teachers would make the final decision on students’ exam grades. Grades would be guided by students’ performances to date, mocks and tests, but based only upon topics that students have been taught rather than the whole curriculum, if it hasn’t been covered. This recommendation was supported by over 85% of respondentsand, overall, I’m in favour of this approach. Having taught in a secondary school myself, I consider teachers to be best placed to judge their students’ understanding and progress within a subject.  However, I do appreciate that this line of attack may not suit everyone and could put considerable, additional pressure onto teachers. 

Schools will be provided with a package of support materials by exam boards and hopefully this will be a useful guide for teachers and aid in grading decisions. The fact that there is flexibility surrounding the use of these materials too, such as suggested exam questions, advice about content coverage, topic selection, marking and grading judgements, should go some way towards easing the angst that some teachers may face. At the time of writing this article, the final guidance on support materials has not yet been published, but should be available here shortly as the consultation is currently being analysed.

The appeals process

Whilst measures are being put in place to promote quality assurance and assessment standardisation, there will be some occasions where students may wish to challenge one or more of their grades. Under these circumstances, there will be an opportunity for them to appeal and a student’s grade could go up or down following a request. Initially, students will be directed to submit an appeal to their centre for internal investigation. If a resolution is not reached, following a meeting to discuss evidence on which the grade was set, candidates will then be able to request that the centre escalate their appeal to the exam board.

Ofqual to offer students the chance to sit exams

Whilst the Government has set out policies on how exams should be graded this year, it has also confirmed that it wants to give students the opportunity to sit exams in autumn 2021 if they wish to try and improve on their teacher assessed grades. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has said he expects Ofqual to make provision for this and a consultation has launched to seek views from students, teachers and exam boards (primarily) on how these exam series should run. The consultation is due to close on 9th April 2021 and further details of it can be found here.

A higher education perspective

Justifiably, students across the country will be worried for their futures and may have concerns that they could be penalised by the decision to scrap exams. Not only have they missed out on face-to-face teaching and learning time, but also potentially some of those vital conversations about next steps, future plans and careers. However, it’s clear that universities want students to feel assured that applicants will not be disadvantaged. Earlier this year, the Chief Executive of the Russell Group, Dr Tim Bradshaw, wrote a letter to students in their final year to assure them that whatever the assessment system is in 2021, Russell Group universities will be as fair and flexible as possible. The full letter can be read here.

This year, the University of Nottingham plans to accept and consider results in the same way as usual. To find the latest policy from any other particular university, you should check their website as it is likely to hold the most up to date information. The University of Nottingham’s guidance page for students that have already applied can be viewed here.

A bumper year?

With an increase of 12% in 2021 university applications to Oxbridge, Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary Medicine courses year on year2, the impact could mean an increase in competition for courses. It’s also worth noting that a record 2,800 18-year olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds in the UK have applied to university - an increase of 19%, compared to a rise of 8% in applicants from the most advantaged backgrounds. An increase in applications may impact on the number of places available through clearing, although it’s worth checking on university or UCAS clearing pages for the most up to date information on courses and places available (the University of Nottingham’s clearing page will be open from 5th July 2021).

We wish your students the very best of luck with their studies in these difficult circumstances.


1. Ofqual and Department for Education (2021) Consultation on how GCSE, AS and A level grades should be awarded in summer 2021, Available at
2. UCAS (2021) Students aim high with university applications for next year, Available at


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