I’ve spent the last few days supporting distressed A Level students, and now we’ve had some time to reflect on the whole experience, I have some thoughts to share, and a call to action for our government.
How were the results worked out?
Teachers were asked to provide Centre Assessed Grades several months ago, and the understanding was the final A Level grades would be based on these, subject to the usual standardisation. So far so good – the vast majority of these grades will have been based on solid evidence and professional integrity.
Then it was announced that the schools’ previous performance would be taken into account. A sensible precautionary measure to avoid artificial grade inflation, but there was some understandable worry about the negative impact on strong students at schools without a track record of high grades (usually in disadvantaged areas).
There was talk of GCSE grades being considered in the algorithm. Again, ok for consistently performing centres, as long as Value Added (the comparison between GCSE achievement and A Level performance) is taken into account. Many students, given the right support, can significantly improve on the target grades that are statistically generated from GCSE results, so this progress figure is as important as the raw GCSE score.
We understood that the numbers were being crunched according to these rules and there shouldn’t be any huge shocks in the final results. Scaremongering in the media warned of danger ahead, but also overemphasised the importance of high grades to students’ life chances. Meanwhile, the political rhetoric maintained that no individual would suffer as a result of the cancellation of exams.
At last, results day arrived.
As expected, carnage ensued, but not necessarily for the reasons we’d imagined. As usual, students who hadn’t achieved what they needed for university went into panic mode, but as the bigger picture emerged, it was obvious that there was a lot more to the ‘algorithm’ than we’d been led to believe. Almost 40% of teachers’ assessments had been downgraded, some by two grades or more. While there was a small increase in the proportion of students achieving A or A*, those at independent schools received double the improvement compared to those attending state comprehensives. Students at sixth form colleges fared worst, with some principals reporting that two thirds of their results had been downgraded.
At the large, successful sixth form college where I work, teachers carefully calculated centre assessed grades based on evidence available, resulting in an overall value added figure in line with the last three years’ results, and a slightly increased grade profile reflecting the strength of this year’s cohort. As a centre with a consistently strong track record and upward trends over the last three years, the procedure as published should not have thrown us any surprises on results day. But this ‘standardisation’ process has suppressed 33% of our grades, not just against teachers’ assessments but also against last year’s outcomes and three-year averages. There seems to be an in-built deflator for large centres. This is disappointing for college management, but devastating for students, for whom, right now, A Level results are the be-all and end-all of life.
So what next?
Unbelievably, the appeals process had not been published by results day, leading to stalemate while students tried to focus on negotiating a university place. Ofqual subsequently released guidance for appealing based on mock results, but withdrew it just hours later. At the time of writing, it is still unclear whether students have any recourse at all if they wish to challenge their final grades.
Meanwhile, some universities have taken matters into their own hands. Worcester College, Oxford, was the first to announce that it would honour all offers, accepting students regardless of their final grades. Sadly, not all have followed suit. Some top universities have been accused of being inflexible, rejecting students dropping one grade on their offers despite pressure from ministers to be as flexible as possible. This is surprising, given the large number of spaces created by the absence of international students this year. The toxic combination of Covid and Brexit was expected to make higher education more accessible for home students in 2020.
A way out
Even when an appeals process emerges out of this shambles, the sheer volume will be unmanageable for schools, colleges and Ofqual (who have already had months to figure this out). More importantly, it will be too late for individual students who are already losing uni places, and it shouldn’t be down to the individual universities to resolve this. We need a solution at national level.
In Scotland, the government abandoned a similar attempt to moderate grades, reinstating centre assessments for those who had been downgraded. This is not a perfect solution – no such thing exists – but it’s the only moral one available. Yes, a few individuals might benefit from a higher grade than they would have achieved in the exam, but this is easily outweighed by a fair grade for the vast majority that truly reflects the ability witnessed by their teachers. Education professionals need to be given the credibility they deserve, and students need the best chance possible to take their next steps with confidence.
The class of 2020 have suffered enough. Shoved into remote learning, often with limited resources, cut off from friends and family, denied their favourite activities and any sense of completion to their courses, their wellbeing has deteriorated. We know that grades won’t matter later, but right now they are life itself. Let’s give these students (and their teachers) some respect.
I fear that a failure to sort out this utter mess in a way that is fair to students will result in increased levels of self-harm and even suicides, robbing us of some of our best and brightest young people. I urge the government to give them back some control over their lives. Who’s with me?
Lucy Aditi is on a mission to help stressed students enjoy their education and meet their life goals without cramming or therapy. Her upcoming FREE challenge reveals how busy parents can help their children get into university by working together to make the best choices and complete a successful application. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for details.