Results day: Ofqual must shift or ministers must intervene

17 Jul 2020, 18:59

A storm of dissatisfaction is brewing over results and if Ofqual don’t offer to change their position then ministers must make them, writes Sir Jon Coles

It goes without saying that Ofqual have a tough job this year. An exam system with no exams.

But they are in danger of getting it badly wrong.

Schools were told to disregard all work from lockdown onwards in assessing grades. So the question schools faced at that point was: what grade would those young people have got if they had sat exams in 2 months’ time?

And what exactly would have been their rank order had that happened?

With the best will in the world, nobody can know for sure the answer to those questions.  Nobody can know what would have happened in those two months. The future was not fixed. Had there been no Covid, which students would have worked harder and more effectively than their teachers would have guessed, which less hard? Who would have had a good and who a bad exam day? We cannot know.

And yet the grades young people get next month will count the same and determine their future just as much as if their own exam answers had determined the results.

Justice cries out for them to change their position

So the only thing that would be fair to young people is to recognise the uncertainty and accept that there must be some leniency. The system must do better than guess who would have made it and who would not. Better to have a year of grade inflation than a year where thousands of young people miss university offers through no fault of their own.

If you do your best and come up short, then you can own your failure and learn from it. If you are prevented from reaching the college, university or apprenticeship of your choice by arbitrary decisions over which you have no influence, what can you possibly take from that?

And yet Ofqual offer no leniency.

Ofqual’s consultation says that they will use a statistical model to determine how many of each grade to award to each school. Past history will determine how many grade 9s, 8s and 7s and how many grade A*s, As and Bs each school will receive.

Yet they know – we all know – that past history is at best a partial guide to the future.  Ofqual’s own data show that every year in every subject, the results of hundreds of schools go up and hundreds go down in ways that a statistical model cannot predict. Or to put it another way – thousands of young people get results which a statistical model cannot predict in advance – even in the largest schools.

And yet Ofqual’s consultation proposes not to take account of the centre assessment grades – except in the smallest cohorts where they really have no choice.

Of course, they must discard outlandish grades from any schools and colleges which have over-claimed absurdly. But we all know that a model that relies solely on historic data will not be more than 80% accurate in grading students.

Yet Ofqual offer no leniency. And Ofqual propose to discard centre assessment grades for most students.

Justice cries out for them to change their position.  But Ofqual is silent. Its Board is silent. As they progress in a slow-motion car crash towards the least just results season in history.

Even now, it isn’t too late for Ofqual to make some change to this year’s system. But I fear that only an unprecedented and exceptionally bold ministerial intervention can save us from an August exam season row which will dwarf anything we have seen before.

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  1. One of the key reasons for the grade inflation is that teachers have been unable to complete the impossible task of predicting who would have crashed and burned on exam day. How could we? When we looked at our grade distribution before sending them off the key difference to past years was the outliers, the students who just had a horrible exam. When we look back at those names few are surprises, but alongside were students who had a good day and achieved a great result.

    To deliver the same results as a normal year staff would have had to pick which students they were throwing under the bus, to take one for the team. With months still to go until the exams I don’t think that’s a possible task.

    Because there won’t be those spectacular failures the results can’t be the same as a normal year. The key students who will lose out are the hard workers who had done everything right to outperform expectations over their school career and will be dragged back into the pack.

  2. Catherine Brioche

    Your extract sums up the situation accurately. My son stands to loose his place on a PWC degree apprenticeship at Birmingham uni, and that’s even if he still sits the exams in the Autumn series and achieves the required 3 grade A’s. How is this justice for this years exam students. Through no fault of their own they have lost control of their own destinies. What lesson will this teach those students who worked so hard and were cheated out of what they deserved. The outcry by so many in advance of the results is testament to the chaos that is about to unfold.

  3. Richatd

    Pressuring Ofqual at this stage to be more lenient risks impacting on those students in schools that did not inflate the predicted grades. Many schools understandably used statistical modelling to ensure that their pupils’ grades were aligned with the previous year’s results. In most cases this required schools to lower the grades predicted by teachers who were quite reasonably predicting the best possible outcomes for their students. To now penalise students from schools that decided to seriously engage with Ofqual guidance would be ridiculous and grossly unfair.