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The Association of School and College Leaders has written to Ofqual and the government “as a matter of urgency”, amid concerns that pupils at schools that followed advice to mark down their own teacher grades have been “punished by that process”.

Geoff Barton, ASCL’s general secretary, said that some of his members who deflated grades to keep them in line with previous years faced a “very big issue” following the decision by the government to let centre-assessment grades stand, and that his organisation is now seeking to “explore what we can do about it”.

Quite rightly if we stand for justice in terms of young people then we need to explore what we can do about it

Schools Week revealed last week how the government is facing a fresh challenge over exam results from schools that followed advice to reduce grades before submission to exam boards in order to avoid grade inflation.

ASCL’s recommended approach to producing centre assessed grades (CAGs) was to take into account expected distributions at national level, results in previous years and prior attainment of pupils.

The advice was described as the “ASCL approach” to ensure “overall outcomes are in line with previous (and future) cohorts. This means individual schools need to submit CAGs which are “non-inflationary””. Guidance added that schools following this process can know they are “doing the right thing”.

Ofqual’s own guidance from the spring also stated that in reviewing centre-assessment grades, heads of centre “should consider how the distribution of centre assessment grades compares with grades achieved by the centre in previous years”.

But following the decision by the government to use centre-assessment grades, heads of schools that adjusted grades downwards in anticipation of the standardisation process have complained their pupils have been unfairly treated.

In a video message to members, Barton said: “Essentially what you were asked to do by Ofqual – and we gave some guidance on how to approach this – was two things, there were two objectives. One is, as the secretary of state put it, to ensure that students are awarded a grade which fairly reflects the work that they have put in. And secondly, you were also being asked to ensure that the distribution of grades follows a similar pattern to that in other years.

“Now there’s a tension between those two things, and some of you have been reporting to us a very significant sense of underachievement by young people who have been punished by that process, who have ended up with grades which mean they’re not getting into their university course or they’re not getting into their sixth form course as a result.

“And quite rightly if we stand for justice in terms of young people then we need to explore what we can do about it.”

Barton said ASCL had written “as a matter of urgency to Ofqual”, and had copied in Susan Acland-Hood, the newly-seconded second permanent secretary at the Department for Education, who has been brought in to oversee the exams fiasco.

David Blow, executive headteacher of the SESSET academy trust and a member of Ofqual’s exam advisory group, last week urged ministers to allow schools that deflated grades a route of appeal.

Speaking to Schools Week this week, Blow said the guidance for schools on the matter was “all a bit mixed”, and said his schools that used a comparable outcomes approach felt it was “not incompatible with the Ofqual guidance”.

“There was actually supposed to be a positive benefit to the schools that did it, not an overall inflationary benefit, but it gave you a chance to fine-tune the grading so that you were genuinely fair to the students while still maintaining an overall non-inflationary approach.”

But the decision by the government to reissue centre-assessment grades then “completely scuppered” the approach by some schools.

“Until three weeks ago, nobody was expected unmoderated CAGs. It was a complete volte-face,” Blow added.

“In the interests of fairness to the students, centres whose CAGs were in line with the calculated grades should be allowed to re-submit their CAGs without having to include unrepresentative previous years’ performance in the calculation.”

An Ofqual spokesperson said schools and colleges “were asked to provide holistic, evidence-based judgments of the grade they believe a student would have achieved if teaching, learning and assessments had gone ahead as planned”.

“We provided guidance on the process and heads of centre were asked to sign a declaration to confirm that the grades submitted honestly and fairly represent what the students would have been most likely to achieve.”