Awarding of qualifications in 2020

Find out how qualifications were awarded in 2020. and key considerations for providers about students applying for 2021 entry.

How were general qualifications awarded in 2020?

This year, because exams were cancelled across the UK due to COVID-19, the qualifications awarding process was different.

Following Ministerial announcements across the UK, (for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) it was decided that students would receive either their ‘centre assessment grade’/ ‘estimation,’ or their ‘calculated grade’ – whichever one was higher.

The grades have been certificated in the same manner as any other year. In England, any student wishing to improve the grades they were awarded in the summer may take exams in the autumn. Awarding organisations are required to issue a certificate showing only the higher of the grades achieved in the summer and autumn exams where a student requests this.

How were grades calculated and awarded?

Centre assessment grades or estimations in Scotland

Following the cancellation of examinations, schools and colleges were asked to provide awarding organisations with a ‘centre assessment grade’(often referred to as a ‘CAG’) or ‘estimation’ in Scotland – an estimated grade for each qualification that a student had been due to undertake. These grades were provided for every subject that a student would have taken over the summer for the following qualifications:

  • GCSEs
  • AS and A levels
  • Extended Project Qualification (EPQ)
  • Advanced Extension Awards (AEA) in Maths
  • Advanced Skills Challenge Certificate (part of the Welsh Baccalaureate)
  • National 5
  • SQA Highers
  • SQA Advanced Highers

The ‘CAG’/’estimation’ was the school’s or college’s judgement of the grade the student would most likely have achieved if they had taken their exam this year. To decide this grade, schools and colleges looked at a range of evidence, including any non-exam assessment, homework assignments, and mock exams. The school or college was also asked to provide a rank order of students within each grade in a subject.

Calculated grades or moderated results in Scotland

Once the ‘CAG’/’estimation’ and rank order information had been submitted to the awarding organisation, a standardisation process was applied. This was designed to align standards across schools and colleges, and produced results for each student called ‘calculated grades’ or ‘moderated results’ in Scotland. You can find out more about the standardisation process on the qualification regulator websites (for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).

Awarding process

Students across the UK were initially awarded calculated grades or moderated results in Scotland. However, following the ministerial announcements, these were replaced by either their ‘CAG’/’estimation’ or the ‘calculated grade’/’moderated result’ for each qualification, whichever was higher. Students did not have to request the change, as they were awarded automatically, and the higher grade certificated.

How were vocational qualifications awarded in 2020?

Most vocational and technical qualifications are structured differently to A levels and GCSEs, so the approach used by awarding organisations was also different.

In England, a range of calculated results and adapted assessments were used. To calculate a result, evidence from results already achieved was used alongside centre assessment grades. The majority of vocational and technical qualifications used for entry to higher education, such as BTECs, received calculated results.

Where a calculated result wasn’t appropriate, because of insufficient evidence or because practical skills needed to be tested, students took adapted assessments. This could have been an online assessment instead of face-to-face, or a practical simulation instead of a workplace observation. Adaptations were agreed by awarding organisations and supported by industry-relevant professional bodies. In some cases, calculated or adapted assessments weren’t possible and the assessment was delayed.

Most vocational and technical qualifications did not use an additional statistical standardisation process to produce calculated grades. However, where a standardisation measure had been used to award vocational qualifications, students were awarded either the standardised grade or their pre-standardisation grade – whichever was higher. Again, this was an automatic process and students were certificated the higher grade only.

In Scotland, all decisions about results for SQA’s vocational qualifications were made by centres in line with guidance from SQA.

Key considerations about students applying to higher education in 2021

  • Grade distributions were very different for qualifications awarded in 2020. This means that care must be taken when comparing outcomes to cohorts undertaking examinations in past and future years. Note: this may impact any value add measurements used by your provider in relation to Level 3 attainment and degree outcomes. For more information on national attainment, consult the data for England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
  • 2020 grades have been certificated as normal. Where a student’s grade has been changed following a successful appeal, a new certificate is issued.
  • Students in England may sit their qualifications as part of an autumn series. Students who were due to sit exams in summer 2020 may choose to sit exams in autumn 2020 or in summer 2021. Awarding organisations aim to publish A level results from the autumn exams in December. If students achieve a different grade in autumn than that awarded in summer 2020, they can request a certificate that shows only the higher of the two grades.
  • First sits not resits in England, Northern Ireland, and Wales: Students were awarded grades in summer 2020 without having had the opportunity to take exams. In England, where a student chooses to take an exam in the autumn, or in summer 2021 instead of the autumn, this would be considered a first sit and not a resit. Similarly, in Northern Ireland and Wales, the summer 2021 exams are considered first sits and not resits for those awarded grades in summer 2020. The next opportunity to sit examinations in Scotland is spring 2021. In line with SQA’s cumulative certification, all grade achievements are certificated together with the achievement year.
  • A small number of private candidates were unable to receive a grade. These students will be able to sit their examination in either autumn 2020 (England only) or summer 2021. Universities and colleges continue to exercise flexibility in their assessment of this group of students informed by UCAS good practice considerations.
  • AS qualifications awarded to Northern Irish and Welsh students will not contribute to their final A level grade. In a typical year, and unlike AS levels in England, in Wales and Northern Ireland the AS level contributes to the overall A level grade. However, for students sitting A level examinations in Wales and Northern Ireland in 2021, their AS level attainment (whether the calculated grade or centre assessed grade/estimation) will not count towards their overall A level grades. Students will have two options: 1) to sit the A2 units only or 2) to sit both the AS and A2 units in the same academic year. If a student decides to take all examinations in 2021, the best result from either their combined examinations or the A2 unit only approach will be awarded.
  • 2021 arrangements being clarified: 
    • In England, and following a public consultation, Ofqual has confirmed some changes to exams and assessment in 2021, including modifications to non-exam assessment arrangements for a number of GCSE, AS and A level subjects so that assessments can be undertaken within public health requirements. Similarly, from 2020 – 2021 some vocational and technical qualifications will be adapted to free up time for teaching and learning, to assist in mitigating the effect of previous or future disruptions to teaching, learning, and assessment. Adapted assessments will be as manageable and flexible as possible so they can be undertaken within public health requirements. There will be no provision in vocational and technical qualifications for the issue of calculated results. Ofqual will provide more information about the approach to awarding GCSEs, AS, and A levels in 2021 due course. 
    • In Wales, Qualifications Wales has announced that there will be some assessment adaptations to some AS and A levels, including modifications to non-exam assessment arrangements, so assessments can be undertaken within public health requirements. WJEC has published these on its website.