A level results: Predictable problems leave students and Ofqual under pressure

13 Aug 2020, 15:26

Failure to deal with predictable problems early on has only created more pressure for students, schools and Ofqual, writes Natalie Perera

The process for awarding A Level and GCSE results this year has been fraught from the outset and made even worse by poor and ill-thought through communication from government.

It is difficult, amongst this myriad of complexities, to now find a workable solution that can provide genuinely fair and consistent outcomes for this year’s cohort of young people – a cohort that have already suffered from massive disruption to their education and the familiarity of their day-to-day lives.

While there was never going to be a perfect solution to the unprecedented decision to cancel formal exams, the government could and should have done much better.

Back in June, we were clear with Ofqual and others that putting significant weight on their standardisation model would lead to errors, biases and widespread dissatisfaction come results day. Schools should have been given the opportunity to challenge the standardisation model early on, without relying so heavily on an appeals process which will only cause further disruption, delay and anxiety for students.

Instead, we have potentially thousands of students who will be worried that their grade is unfair or inaccurate, potentially thousands of schools and colleges whose improved performance has failed to be recognised and universities having to create new rules for allowing discretion as well as coping with delays to admissions while appeals are dealt with.

The next few weeks are likely to be bleak for students who are challenging their results

On the issue of appeals, the last-minute decision by the government to allow appeals on the basis of mock exam results will only cause further chaos. Anyone remotely familiar with education policy will know that mock exams are inconsistent and used in very different ways by schools. It is now down to Ofqual (as if they didn’t have enough to deal with) to come up with a process to “validate” mock exams so that they can be considered as part of the appeals process. And what if a student’s mock exam is considered “invalid”? What might be the likely backlash to schools?

We don’t yet know how many students will appeal their results. That information will emerge over the coming weeks. But we do know that over a third of exams were downgraded by one grade. While a single grade may not seem that much, it could be the difference between whether the student has passed the exam or not. And even if only the students who were downgraded by two or more grades appealed, that would still be between 20,000 and 25,000 appeals for Ofqual to deal with, under pressure to avoid further delays to university admissions.

We also need to continue to assess the impact of this process on the most disadvantaged and under-represented pupils. While there has been an overall increase in the top grades, the increase for independent schools was more than twice as high as that in secondary schools (4.7 per cent compared to 2 per cent) and the increase for sixth form and FE colleges was far lower, at just 0.3 per cent. Coupled with the fact that subjects with lower entry rates, such as music, languages and the arts, were less likely to be downgraded by the standardisation model and more likely to be studied by non-disadvantaged students, there are signs that, overall, the process may have had a disproportionately negative impact on disadvantaged students. Once we have a fuller dataset later this year, we can interrogate this issue further.

In the meantime, the next few weeks are likely to be bleak for students who are challenging their results as well as for universities and employers trying to work out how to ensure fair access within a flawed system (and we still have GCSE results to come next week).

Despite the messiness of this year’s results, we should still congratulate a cohort of young people who have had to show resilience and patience beyond their years. The best way to do that might just well be to ask a little less of it from them by quickly putting right the problems that have manifested today.

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