Exam grades are in chaos, teachers are in despair, appeals are set for meltdown


Education Secretary Gavin Williamson issued a humiliating apology to millions of pupils last night – as fears grew of chaos in the A-level appeals process.

A quarter of a million sixth-formers will get their results this morning after an 11th-hour change to the way grades are awarded.

In an attempt to head off a rebellion like that seen in Scotland, A-level entrants have been given the option of choosing the results of their mock exams if they are not happy with the grade they are given.

But this has sparked warnings the appeals system will be overwhelmed by huge numbers of pupils asking to change their grades amid reports 40 per cent will be downgraded by a computer algorithm which takes into account their schools’ previous results.

The predicted delays threaten to throw the university admissions process into paralysis with just weeks to go until the start of the new term.  

But students who have their results downgraded could now be helped by universities which have agreed to ‘soften’ their required grades due to the extraordinary circumstances of this year’s examinations, The Times reported.

Under the system introduced when this year’s exams were cancelled due to Covid, pupils’ marks will be based on their teachers’ estimates of what they would have achieved.

But exam boards are expected to lower many A-level grades by computer to prevent grade inflation. Head teachers said last night they were ‘staggered’ by the sheer scale of the downgrades.  

A quarter of a million sixth-formers will get their results this morning after an 11th-hour change to the way grades are awarded. Pictured: Pupils in Glasgow yesterday

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson issued a humiliating apology to millions of pupils last night – as fears grew of chaos in the A-level appeals process

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson issued a humiliating apology to millions of pupils last night – as fears grew of chaos in the A-level appeals process

The predicted delays threaten to throw the university admissions process into paralysis with just weeks to go until the start of the new term

The predicted delays threaten to throw the university admissions process into paralysis with just weeks to go until the start of the new term

Q&A 

Why is results day different this year?

Exams were cancelled across the UK in March as schools closed. As a result, Ofqual, the exam regulator in England, decided grades would instead be awarded based on teacher assessments of how pupils would have performed, moderated by exam boards.

However, it became apparent that teachers’ grades had been far too generous. As a result, as many as 40 per cent of grades have been adjusted downwards by Ofqual, using a computer algorithm that takes into account schools’ results over the past three years.

The idea was that this would stop this year’s pupils having higher grades than their near contemporaries, and mean they would keep their credibility in the eyes of universities and employers. But the sheer scale of downgrading by the computer algorithm was strongly criticised.

Why and how was the policy changed at the last minute?

On Tuesday evening, the Government suddenly introduced a last-minute ‘triple lock’ policy – meaning that pupils unhappy with the grades they receive today can ask for their mock exam grades to be used instead, or take fresh exams in October.

The decision was made after a fiasco in Scotland last week which saw 124,000 grades for equivalent exams awarded by teachers lowered, with the poorest entrants getting their marks downgraded at more than double the rate of the richest.

On Tuesday, the Scottish government was forced into an embarrassing U-turn, promising to restore the original teacher predictions to students who had been downgraded. The ‘triple lock’ policy was introduced in England to prevent similar chaotic scenes.

How will pupils in England be able to switch grades?

They can only challenge their results via their schools, and not as individuals. If they wish for their mock results to be taken instead of the results they receive today, the school will need to prove to Ofqual that the mock exams were sufficiently rigorous.

But the exact process this will involve is unknown. Yesterday Ofqual said it was ‘working urgently’ to try to implement the change ‘as fairly as possible’. It said it would not know what evidence schools needed to provide for appeals until next week. Schools minister Nick Gibb said mocks need to have been ‘sat under exam conditions’, but provided no method to prove this.

Why are teachers worried about mock results being used?

Mock results could be unreliable, teachers have warned. They are often sat under differing conditions, with some schools more strict than others. Providing evidence – such as the mock papers themselves – for appeals might be impossible because the papers would have been thrown away.

Will the appeal system cope?

Last night head teachers were warning that ‘every school’ may decide to appeal grades – risking overwhelming the system.

The current deadline for university applicants to meet their offer conditions is September 7, leaving exam boards less than four weeks to issue outcomes for thousands of appeals.

What could be the impact on going to university?

If students plan to appeal or resit in October, they need to contact admissions departments quickly. Universities have promised to try to keep places open until appeals conclude. In practice students could end up missing weeks of term time before their appeals are resolved. Universities, who have had access to today’s results since last week to hasten admissions, will now have to contend with students assuring them their mock results were higher, but will need to wait on Ofqual to confirm them as valid.

Schools minister Nick Gibb has confirmed around 40 per cent of the grades estimated by teachers in England have been downgraded, with teachers last night claiming marks had been lowered from an A* to a B in some cases.        

Gill Burbridge, the principal of Leyton Sixth Form College, said: ‘We were really rigorous in our standardisation process. 

‘We knew that we would be judged in relation to our three-year averages so we made sure that the centre’s test grades were in keeping with that three-year average. So I am, frankly, appalled.’

Mr Williamson told pupils he regretted the ‘disruption’ caused by coronavirus on their education. 

But as he deals with the fallout from the crisis, Boris Johnson will spend exams day in Northern Ireland extolling the virtues of the Union.

Labour leader Keir Starmer blasted the Prime Minister yesterday. He said: ‘Responsibility for the exam fiasco lies squarely with Boris Johnson. Johnson should be meeting students today, apologising to them for this farce and the fact he risks robbing them of their future. This is a complete fiasco.

‘It was obvious that this was going to be difficult but it’s been weeks or months in the coming.

‘To have an 11th-hour decision that’s caused widespread chaos among teachers I have been speaking to, families and young people, it smacks of incompetence.’ 

Following the shambles in Scotland, late on Tuesday ministers rushed in a revised system for England to allow more appeals.

But it emerged yesterday that the new system is not ready, with exams regulator Ofqual saying it will not be able to lay out the appeals process until next week.

It is feared the change will result in almost every school trying to mount an appeal, piling huge pressure on the system. And with the deadline for students to meet their university’s offer conditions just over three weeks away, it means many appeals may not be completed in time.

University leaders held urgent talks yesterday with an education minister to seek clarity on the new rules. Mr Williamson offered an apology to ‘every single child right across the country for the disruption that they’ve had to suffer’, but maintained the ‘overwhelming majority’ would receive grades that were ‘credible’ and ‘strong’.

But heads, who received their pupils’ grades yesterday, complained of an unexpected ‘dip’ in results, with one saying: ‘I am staggered by how much our students have been downgraded.’

Another said: ‘What they have done to our A-level results is a total joke and has penalised the majority of our students, some being given three or four grades lower than well-moderated teacher assessment grades. It’s totally criminal.’

Suzie Longstaff, the head of Putney High School in south-west London, said: ‘I think every school will be appealing. Can you imagine the pressure on the exam boards?’

Professor Julia Buckingham, of Universities UK, urged students not to panic if they miss out on their offer. She added: ‘This last-minute policy change presents a number of challenges and we are seeking urgent clarification from the Department for Education on a range of issues including the likely scale and timing of appeals.’

A spokesman for the Russell Group, which represents Britain’s elite universities, urged the Government to ‘ensure appeals are processed as quickly as possible to prevent further uncertainty for students and the sector’. Geoff Barton, leader of the Association of School and College Leaders, accused the Government of a ‘panicked and chaotic response’.

Some senior Tory politicians also expressed surprise at the last-minute change. Former education secretary Kenneth Clarke said: ‘There is no perfect methodology, although it is a pity they did not do this earlier.’

The Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents the major exam boards, said they were ‘urgently reviewing’ the announcement. They have not provided any guarantees that appeals will be determined before university terms start.

Alan Brookes, chairman of the Kent Association of Headteachers and the executive head of Fulston Manor school in Sittingbourne, described the situation as a ‘rolling disaster’.

He said: ‘Tomorrow, I fear there will be a lot of students going, ‘I didn’t deserve that. That’s not fair.’ I think they will feel awful.’ 

A spokesman for the Russell Group, which represents Britain's elite universities, urged the Government to 'ensure appeals are processed as quickly as possible to prevent further uncertainty for students and the sector' (file image)

A spokesman for the Russell Group, which represents Britain’s elite universities, urged the Government to ‘ensure appeals are processed as quickly as possible to prevent further uncertainty for students and the sector’ (file image)

Fury of the head teachers: School chiefs express alarm at plan to allow pupils to use their mock A-level results as their final marks – because many weren’t taken seriously and the results may have been binned

  • Teachers have said mock results are not a fair way to award grades to students 
  • Some have called them the most ‘singularly inconsistent’ information to be used
  • Different schools have different marking practices for mock exams, which are also sat under different conditions, with some schools stricter than others

By Josh White and Sarah Harris for the Daily Mail 

Teachers are alarmed by the decision to allow A-level pupils to use their mock results as their final grade.

Mock results were described as the ‘most singularly inconsistent bit of information that could possibly be used’ and there were warnings the new system could actually increase unfairness.

Many pupils are expected to demand schools submit evidence on their behalf to Ofqual, the exams regulator, if they outperformed today’s grades during mocks earlier in the year.

But teachers warned last night that it will not be a fair way to award grades. Different schools have different marking practices for mock exams and they are sat under different conditions – with some schools stricter than others.

While some schools set harder mock papers to give pupils a wake-up call to work harder for the real thing, others give pupils an easier ride hoping it will give them a morale boost.

Teachers also warned that schools may not have retained the marked papers they need to present as ‘evidence’ – and they could have been thrown away.

Students have been told they will be allowed to to sit exams in the autumn if they are unhappy with their mock grades or the results awarded by exam boards. Pictured: Pupils return to St Paul's High School for the first time since the start of the coronavirus lockdown nearly five months ago on August 12, 2020 in Glasgow

Students have been told they will be allowed to to sit exams in the autumn if they are unhappy with their mock grades or the results awarded by exam boards. Pictured: Pupils return to St Paul’s High School for the first time since the start of the coronavirus lockdown nearly five months ago on August 12, 2020 in Glasgow

Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools’ Council, said: ‘What if the mock result wasn’t expressed as a grade but as a percentage? What if you’re a school that had mocks in some subjects but not others? That’s going to be troublesome.’

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, added: ‘Mocks have never been this important before, so many schools won’t have a secure paper trail, and may quite literally have put them in the bin.’

Francesca Craig, head teacher at St Peter’s School in Durham, described mocks as ‘the most singularly inconsistent bit of information that could possibly be used’.

Liz Laybourn, head of Burgess Hill Girls in West Sussex, said: ‘Mocks are not set uniformly and schools use them in different ways. Some will set harder papers to give pupils a jolt and spur them into revision, for example.

‘We also know some pupils don’t work as hard for their mocks as the real thing so the result does not reflect how they would have performed in the real exam.’

Schools minister Nick Gibb said mocks needed to have been ‘sat under exam conditions’ to form the basis of an appeal, but provided no method for schools to prove this. Ofqual has been told to determine how mocks can be used, but said it was unable to give details, adding that it would try to provide guidance next week.

Fiona Boulton, head of Guildford High School and chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses Conference, said: ‘We need a definition of the term ‘mock’ as these are very different in every school.’ 

Lewes Old Grammar School head Robert Blewitt added: ‘My teachers worked long and hard to supply centre-assessed grades which accurately show the extent of their pupils’ hard work, so why is the Government relying on mock results, which often do not reflect ability, instead of what the teachers are telling them?’

Schools minister Nick Gibb, pictured, said mocks needed to have been ‘sat under exam conditions’ to form the basis of an appeal, but provided no method for schools to prove this

Schools minister Nick Gibb, pictured, said mocks needed to have been ‘sat under exam conditions’ to form the basis of an appeal, but provided no method for schools to prove this

David Laws, former schools minister and executive chairman of the Education Policy Institute, said: ‘Offering a mock grade option does very little to solve the question of fairness. Ofqual now faces the huge task of attempting to set what the standards for a valid mock result will be.’

Students will be able to sit exams in the autumn if they are unhappy with their mock grades or the results awarded by exam boards.

Mr Gibb insisted the Government had nothing to apologise for by acting so late in the day in England. 

He told BBC Breakfast: ‘There is no confusion. We have been very clear from the very beginning. We had to have a system in place to award qualifications to young people given that we had cancelled the exams.

‘We apologise to nobody for finding solutions.’ 

Triple lock on exam results? This is just a three-layered pudding of confusion, writes teacher and education commentator CALVIN ROBINSON 

Can our public examination system become any more of a fiasco? That was my first thought when I saw the front page of today’s Daily Mail.

It revealed that A-level students will now be able to ‘choose’ to use the grades they were awarded in their mock exams if they are not happy with the results they receive this morning.

How on earth did we get to this stage? Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has had months to think about this, from the moment lockdown was announced back in March.

And yet with just 36 hours to go before results were released this week, embarrassed ministers were still on the back foot, announcing what they have called a triple lock on grades. 

Under the hastily assembled new system, A-level and GCSE students will be able to take either the grades they have been awarded this morning (which are based on teacher assessments and a ‘standardised’ model prepared under a computer algorithm), their mock results or to sit exams in the autumn.

Triple lock? Hardly.

Secondary school teacher Calvin Robinson shares his thoughts on the government's last minute announcement regarding students and their A Level results (Stock image)

Secondary school teacher Calvin Robinson shares his thoughts on the government’s last minute announcement regarding students and their A Level results (Stock image)

In all my many years of teaching at secondary schools, I have never seen such a three-layered pudding of confusion.

So the question is why did Mr Williamson feel obliged to perform such a dramatic, 11th-hour U-turn?

He and the Government had watched in horror as the situation in Scotland unfolded. 

There, one in four pupils who had studied the Scottish equivalent of A Levels found the marks predicted for them by their teachers downgraded this year.

In a humiliating climbdown – and despite legitimate concerns about grade inflation – Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that all pupils would be able to take the grades their teachers had predicted for them.

The previous plans in England, devised after discussions between schools and the exams regulator Ofqual, were far from perfect.

Relying on teachers’ assessments is fraught with problems even before you bring in a computerised system.

In particular, using historical data of a school’s performance risks being deeply unfair.

Not only does it fail to take account of schools that are improving: it can mean a bright child in a bad school can be disadvantaged over middle-class children in strong-performing schools.

But allowing students to use their mock results plasters further confusion on this rotten facade.

Pictured: Teacher Calvin Robinson (right) with the former Education Secretary Justine Greening (left)

Pictured: Teacher Calvin Robinson (right) with the former Education Secretary Justine Greening (left)

It is bad enough that children have lost six months of schooling and been deprived of an entire summer.

Now we have an entire cohort of children leaving school and seeing 14 years of education shuddering to an end without any objective measure of their attainment. It makes effective university selection impossible.

It will confuse employers who will now lack any rigorous measure of achievements.

Quite simply, the so-called triple lock is grossly unfair. Public exams have survived for a good reason: at their best, they enable social justice and mobility.

Yes, children from privileged backgrounds can benefit from better teaching and private tutors.

But in the examination hall, all youngsters compete on the same terms relying on their wits and their own preparation.

That is not the case with mock exams. As a teacher, I have often been shocked as students who were bumping along at grade C – and who performed badly in their mocks – ace their A-levels.

Some schools approach mocks much more seriously than others do – and often students take mocks at entirely different points of the school year. Grades in mocks should never be taken as gospel.

Mr Robinson believes the whole process is certain to become a bureaucratic nightmare

Mr Robinson believes the whole process is certain to become a bureaucratic nightmare

The whole process is certain to become a bureaucratic nightmare for Ofqual, a small quango that many fear lacks the expertise, manpower and resources to oversee the appeals process.

The blame for this situation lies squarely in Mr Williamson’s decision to cancel GCSEs and A-levels before schools closed in March.

It was unnecessary to make this call before anyone knew how long the closure would have to last. It would have been much more sensible to have delayed the exams into the summer to encourage students to maintain their focus during lockdown.

So what next? Universities and employers must work with what they have. A deluge of appeals, disappointment and lasting resentment by a generation of school-leavers simply seems inevitable.

I fear it is now too late to salvage much from the wreckage of this school year for current GCSE and A-level students. The priority must be to insulate next year’s examinees from the mess that this chaotic approach has left behind.

That means ensuring schools open at full capacity next month, despite objections from unions.

Our children have already lost too much in these sterile months of lockdown.

We have to do better next academic year and a first critical step is to restore confidence in our examination system.

If we fail to, I fear deeply for the future of an entire generation.

Calvin Robinson is a secondary school teacher and education commentator



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