Ofqual adviser: ‘Schools are tearing their hair out – it’s an absolute shambles’

An Ofqual adviser has broken ranks to brand the handling of this year’s results as an “absolute shambles”, suggesting the only solution to quell the growing outrage may be to award pupils their teacher grades.

Professor Rob Coe, who sits on the regulator’s standards advisory committee, told the Radio 4 Today programme the awarding of calculated grades has been a “personal tragedy” for young people affected.

While he said Ofqual was in a “completely no-win situation” and pointed out that results days every year lead to disappointment for some pupils, he said: “It’s definitely been amplified this year.”

He admitted there “isn’t a great way out”, but concluded he was “inclined to agree” that following Scotland and now Northern Ireland by awarding pupils their centre assessment grade may be the solution “given the mess we’re in”.

“The big downside of just going with teacher assessed grades is the problem of grade inflation, that’s a problem because too many people would qualify for university, or further destinations at GCSE.

“That seems like a relatively minor problem compared with the amount of outrage that’s out there and the political momentum that this whole thing is taking on, particularly if the cap is lifted on university places.”

However, he said that “much less applies in the case of post-16 destinations… [which] are more elastic and can expand to take more students.”

The Telegraph reported today that the Ofqual’s own board is split on whether to ditch its own algorithm and just award pupils their CAGs.

It comes after the regulator sparked further outrage on Saturday by removing its own appeals guidance just hours after publishing it. The guidance still remains under review, but the regulator has been slammed for secrecy around what’s going on – with downgraded pupils desperate to know whether they can challenge their grades.

Education select committee chairman Robert Halfon told Talk Radio that Ofqual “needs to stop behaving like cardinals at the Vatican, shrouded in secrecy, and actually come out and communicate… What on Earth has gone on in that organisation?”

Coe also added: “People in schools are just tearing their hair out at their inability to support students who have had their lives wrecked and they don’t know what the process is because we haven’t had that guidance published. The whole thing is an absolute shambles.”

Northern Ireland has this morning announced it will award GCSEs based on teacher grades, with sector leaders calling on the English government to follow suit.

Dr Simon Hyde, the incoming Headmasters’ and Headmistress’ Conference general secretary, said  awarding CAGs is the “only way now to stop this intolerable strain on students and teachers”.

He added: “Whilst we accept that the unavoidable outcome is grade inflation, we believe this is the less bad option when tens of thousands of students are facing unfair grades, thousands of schools are facing an as yet undeveloped appeals process and most of us need to concentrate our energy on supporting the Prime Minister’s desire to reopen our schools in a few weeks’ time.”

But Coe, who advises Ofqual on how to maintain standards of qualifications, also warned that awarding CAGs would result in “issues with comparability, and the next year is the one where that really bites… it does have implications, it’s not a cost-free solution”.

Other issues highlighted with awarding CAGs are that it could be unfair to pupils who attended schools that were more cautious in awarding grades– rather than schools that over-egged their predictions.

It would also cause a headache for universities, many of whom have already filled their places for next year. Although Coe has suggested that lifting the cap on university places – and allowing them to take in more pupils – could help solve the issue.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson has reportedly refused to answer questions on exams from reporters outside his home this weekend.

But he told the Times on Saturday that there would be “no U-turn” on the grading system as it would lead to grade inflation.

It’s also emerged Ofqual would only accept help from the Royal Statistical Society in designing the calculated grades system if its statisticians signed a five-year non-disclosure agreement, which they refused to do.

The RSS has now written to the stats watchdog asking them to review Ofqual’s model, citing concerns over a lack of transparency.

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  1. Janet Downs

    The bogeyman of grade inflation is often invoked but is a false one If each GCSE grade is linked to criteria which pupils must reach in order to be awarded a grade, then each pupil would receive the grade they had achieved. This was what Keith Joseph envisaged when he proposed GCSEs in the eighties. Pupils would receive a grade based on ‘what they themselves know and can do and without regard to the performance of others’ (
    That phrase ‘without regard to the performance of others’ implies that pupils’ grades will not be affected by how many other pupils meet the same grade criteria. In other words, there would be no rationing of grades to fit some pre-conceived statistical model.
    Grading against set criteria needs to be paramount. Yes, there would be fluctuation from year-to-year but if the criteria are fixed then fears about grade inflation (usually whipped up by politicians and some sections of the media) would be empty noise.

  2. Janet Downs

    The above comment also applies to A levels: grade each student against set criteria.
    I would add that teacher-assessed, internally and externally moderated, coursework should be an integral part of GCSEs and A levels. If coursework had been the norm this year, then teachers would have had evidence to show that individual pupils had met the required standard for their estimated grade.

  3. The government yet again believe that one size fits all!
    Where in real life would someone be expected to study something for two years and then sit an examination on what they have learnt. Modular examinations and coursework are more realistic! Study something for a short period of time, sit an exam, move on. If this were a few years ago, there would be no issue, everyone would have received their average grade from the modules they had sat and the coursework they had submitted and almost everyone would have been awarded what they were expecting, but apparently modules and coursework are not stringent enough. Maybe we should scrutinise the government in the same way, and use the same algorithm to adjust the grades on their past performance!

  4. Rehana Pandor

    The process of submitting teacher assessed grades was rigorously done by most schools. All that was needed from Ofqual/government was to take each school’s results for each subject and analysed the previous performance trends of that school etc, queried any anomalies directly with the school and then if needed possibly one/two of the lowest ranked candidate in any particular grade would have been downgraded if the school couldn’t justify the given grade and the rest would have stood. That’s what schools were expecting. Yes, it would have been a long, ardous process but it was doable in the given timeframe and if all their resources were utilised by Ofqual to this end point. This would have been much fairer process of scrutiny and analysis than an algorithm.