This is a case study for Principle V5: Efficiency and proportionality. 

In 2021, Ofqual, the qualifications regulator in England, launched the GRading and Admissions Data for England (GRADE) data sharing project. This initiative makes available a number of linked datasets, covering exam results from 2017 to 2019 and grades from summer 2020.

In summer 2020, public examinations due to take place were cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The qualifications regulators and awarding bodies in the UK developed statistical models to calculate and award grades to ensure that students could continue to the next stage of their education. Calculated grades did not command public confidence and grades were ultimately awarded using the higher of the initial grade provided by schools and the calculated grade. The OSR report ‘Ensuring Statistical Models Command Public Confidence’ sets out the lessons that can be learnt from this for the wider statistical system.

There continued to be a great deal of interest in the models that were developed, and the impact of the grades awarded on admissions to university. The approach in 2020 had also shone a spotlight on the assessment and university admissions process more generally. In response, Ofqual, the qualifications regulator in England, launched the GRADE project to make the underlying data available to researchers to support research on the assessment and admissions systems. The aims of the project were to:

  • enable lessons to be learned from the awarding of grades for GCSEs and A levels in summer 2020
  • use data from the awarding of GCSEs and A levels in the period 2017 to 2020 to inform future education policy – particularly around the fairness of methods for measuring students’ attainment, and implications for university admissions processes
  • provide accredited researchers with access to data through the Office of National Statistics Secure Research Service to allow them to perform insightful, evaluative independent research

The project links Ofqual data on qualifications, UCAS data from the university application system and Department for Education (DfE) data on pupil characteristics and prior educational attainment, and was supported by resource from Ofsted. The following data from 2020 and the most recent pre-pandemic years (2017-2019) were made available:

  • Ofqual – data on GCSE and A level examinations and qualifications collected from awarding organisations
  • DfE – extracts of the National Pupil Database (NPD) for GCSE and A level students
  • UCAS – records from the university application process

The data was de-identified and pseudonymised so that the necessary data protection safeguards are in place to protect the rights of individual students. Alongside accompanying data specifications, Ofqual published a privacy notice and engaged in a range of communication and engagement activities to inform students of the project and of their rights. Work was undertaken to enable independent research to be carried out and Administrative Data Research UK (ADR UK) made funding available via ADR UK fellowships.

In December 2021, OSR wrote to the chief regulator at Ofqual, and the heads of the other organisations involved, to congratulate them on making the GRADE data available. The development and sharing of this linked dataset demonstrated a commitment to transparency in relation to the awarding of grades, and willingness to gain insights on the impact on further education, higher education and employment and from the functioning of the system in years when exams are available.

This example shows how Ofqual has supported public understanding of important issues by increasing opportunities for the sharing, linkage, and cross-analysis of prominent administrative data sources, by making them available to be reused for independent analysis.