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How should you hold leaders to account over 2023 exam results?

| 7 minute read

Students who took exams this year saw a return to pre-pandemic grading arrangements which meant GCSE and A Level results nationally were lower than in 2022.

Jo IG 3 modifiedOfqual Chief Regulator Dr Jo Saxton wrote to governors and trustees back in July to warn us to expect a lower results profile this year - and, importantly, not to interpret it as a change in performance at the schools, colleges and trusts where we govern.

We reached out to Dr Saxton, a former governor herself, to find out why she felt it was important to speak directly to governing boards on this issue and to ask if she has any further guidance for boards when reviewing results this term. 

Jo, what was your intention when writing to governors and trustees?

I wanted to make sure that governors and trustees, those who are holding leaders to account, understood the policy direction. Although there’s been a lot of general publicity about this change, I still thought it would be useful to write to governing boards, so they understood the arrangements directly from us.

It was also important to make sure that school leaders who’ve worked so hard throughout the pandemic are treated fairly by making sure that governors or trustees understand that this drop in grades reflects a national reset of results, rather than a performance change. 

As part of this reset, what advice do you have for boards who’re looking to measure progress and performance for this cohort?

My steer to boards would be to make comparisons where necessary with results from 2019 and in fact 2018 too, but 2019 in particular. 2019 was the reference year that exam boards were directed to work from.

I know leaders and governors compare percentage point changes so it’s useful to refer back to the pre-pandemic years and remember that, at a national level, things move up and down a little bit all the time.  It’s just natural because students are slightly different and the number of students taking a particular qualification change and those sorts of things can cause differences in the data. It doesn’t necessarily mean something is going wrong with the performance of a school or college. It’s really important to look at trends over time.

Thinking about the legacy of the pandemic, is it still meaningful to compare results this year with those from 2019 given how many different issues schools have faced in terms of attendance and behaviour?

I think that’s an important question. At Ofqual, since we first set out this direction of travel in September 2021, there haven’t been any government mandated school closures and almost all students taking GCSE, A Level or even Level 3 VTQs are doing those as a two-year programme of study, so we felt it was reasonable that students setting out at the start of a new course knew what would happen at the end.

We visited, either online or virtually, more than 100 different schools and colleges up and down the country and spoke to hundreds of students who told us loud and clear that they wanted normal exams and, in their words, ‘real grades’. As much as they loved and respected their teachers, they saw this as the fairest way to be assessed. We also met and discussed this with governors too.

Students were clear that they wanted to be judged in the way that pupils had been before them and alongside their peers. There was still some support in place this year, for example formula and equation sheets in GCSE maths, physics and combined science, that the Department for Education allowed. The grading protection in place also meant that an average student who would have been on track to get a certain grade prior to the pandemic had just as much chance of getting that grade this year.

You also wrote to students this year to help manage their expectations, didn’t you?

Yes, I wrote a letter to students with Clare Marchant who’s Chief Executive of UCAS, to reassure them that it's common for students not to get their predicted grades. In any year pre-pandemic, only around 1 in 5 students would meet or exceed what their school had predicted for them.

However, because in the pandemic years more students met their predictions - people have forgotten this. If you read the UCAS guidance, grade prediction is aspirational. If a student doesn’t achieve their predicted grades, it doesn’t mean something’s gone wrong.

So that’s another really important thing governors can do - interrogate the processes schools and colleges are using when setting grade predictions. I’ve just seen on a national scale the number of young people whose grades didn’t meet their predictions - but I can hand on heart confirm it’s not issues with the exam processes that are the key cause of this. Headline results nationally at both A Level and GCSE were close to those in 2019 given the return to pre-pandemic standards.

I know it may have felt harsh to some students, but we absolutely made these decisions in their best interests. We want to open up opportunities for students - the right opportunities - not take them away. What we’ve seen for students who received pandemic grades at A Level is that the drop-out rate at university is just depressingly high - about 30% didn’t continue with their course after a year according to Student Loans Company statistics - and that’s not in anybody’s interests. Students were being accepted on courses that, in some instances, weren’t right for them. 

A slightly broader question - do you have any advice for governing boards when supporting schools or trusts to choose between exam boards?

The whole point of Ofqual and our work in respect to regulating GCSEs and A Levels is to make sure that it is no easier or harder to get a certain grade between one board and another.

Exam boards have the freedom to look at the curriculum from the Department for Education and chop it up differently and assess it in slightly different ways, so that’s the thing governing boards might want to look at. Which curriculum emphasis and which forms of assessment best suit their school or college setting. And of course, pricing.

All the exam boards now need to provide schools and colleges with the ability to see the marked scripts to help inform decisions around appeals.

And what advice, if any, do you have for governing boards who are supporting and challenging leaders on T Levels?

The government set out to be very ambitious with the T level programme. It’s designed to be a state-of-the-art technical qualification that’s equivalent to doing 3 A Levels and has a required industry placement component. It really is the qualification for a young person who wants to develop a specialism in a specific industry and who likes the idea of workplace engagement.

However, it’s very much a case of all of your eggs in one basket as T Levels are big qualifications and we’re hearing from students that there’s a lot of content and frequent assessments, which can be rigorous and challenging. For some students that’s brilliant and it’s the perfect qualification but it won’t be for everybody. As the Chief Regulator, it’s great that there’s the choice, as the more choice there is for students, the better. 

Ofqual regulates the Technical Qualification (TQ) within a T Level, which comprise the core assessments and one or more occupational specialisms. As these assessments are new and different to other qualifications, I would encourage governors to make sure teachers really understand them and are preparing learners appropriately. The government has commissioned the Education & Training Foundation to offer professional development on T Levels for both leaders and teaching staff which governors may wish to signpost. 

Finally, can I ask about your experience as a governor?

I’ve been a governor in a couple of London primary schools and a chair of governors at a primary school that was moving into an academy trust. I absolutely loved being the chair of governors and working with the headteacher, getting to know the local community and being involved in the recruitment of new governors. Two in particular I’ve stayed in touch with.

I’ve also been a curriculum link governor at a couple of secondary schools. This was when I was a school leader. It’s so useful to see a different phase from the one that you’re working in and a different context. We can all learn from seeing how other people do things and it’s nice to share your insights as well. I very much believe in governance as there to provide challenge and hold leaders to account but also support, and it was that which I enjoyed in particular. 

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’d like to pass my thanks on to all those in governance and leadership positions who have worked so tirelessly these past two years to support the two-step path back to normal formal examinations and assessments.


Dr Jo Saxton announced last month that she will be stepping down as Chief Regular at Ofqual at the end of December. She will take up a new post as Chief Executive of UCAS in January 2024. 

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