TAG appeals are Ofqual’s mess. Let them own it

27 Jun 2021, 5:00

Disgruntled parents won’t like hearing they can’t easily appeal their children’s grades, writes Dennis Sherwood, but there’s an easy answer to that

It’s August 10. A-level results have just been announced and a stressed-out parent is making a more-than-considerable fuss about a grade they think is unfair.  

What to do? Naturally, you feel exposed and vulnerable. You want to defend your school’s hard-fought, robust and well-evidenced protocol. You have a duty to defend your staff, too.  

And besides, this complaint can go nowhere. You know (but the parent doesn’t) that appeals against “academic judgment” can only be made if that judgment was “unreasonable”. Which, of course, your judgment was not.

What may not come to mind (but which I’m convinced is the only right way to de-escalate this situation) is to acquiesce in the weakness of the system. Suppose you start by acknowledging the anger and disappointment, which are more than likely justified. Suppose you go on to admit openly that the grade is the result of an honest and professional opinion, and that another teacher or another school might have given a different one.  

Before you call me crazy, consider what happens next.

Your hands are tied: Ofqual will not allow an appeal on these grounds. But you can quote the regulator’s own words to the now-disarmed parent: “It is possible for two examiners to give different but appropriate marks to the same answer. There is nothing wrong or unusual about that.”

Countering that ‘academic judgment can’t be challenged’ is unlikely to quell their anger

The quote dates back to 2016, and at the time it raised few eyebrows. But in the case of this year’s TAGs, there are three implications: the marks you’ve given might have been different had the same scripts been marked by a different teacher, perhaps at a different school; students might have been awarded different TAGs had the grade boundaries been drawn in slightly different places; and the TAGs might be different had a different protocol been used, with a different mix of components, or with different weightings.  

TAGs are the result of a series of judgments, all taken with great care and in good faith, but judgments none the less – more so, perhaps, than any normal year’s exams, but only as a matter of scale, not in their essence.  

As Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman states in a recent book: “Unwanted variability in judgments that should ideally be identical can create rampant injustice, high economic costs and errors of many kinds.” Well, that unwanted variability is not new to our exams system, and it’s time we woke up to that fact.

Professional judgments are proffered in many fields, most notably medical diagnoses and legal advice. In both these examples, a concerned person can seek a second opinion with relative ease.

For school exams, however, since Ofqual changed its rules in 2016 to make it harder to appeal, a second opinion is allowed only under very limited circumstances.

A doctor whose diagnosis is subject to a second opinion might well feel threatened or aggrieved, but ultimately will recognise that their professional opinion is just that. A different expert can give a different one. The matter is not one of rightness or wrongness, but about legitimate difference.

So with the possibility that another equally expert teacher might have given a different mark, or that another equally conscientious school might have used a different protocol, our hypothetical parent’s concern about that is perfectly legitimate.  

The problem, then, is that there is nowhere to redirect that parent’s concern, and countering that academic judgment can’t be challenged is unlikely to quell their anger. Ofqual might get away with that, but the friendly, neighbourhood school won’t. The idea that they might is wilful blindness from those who have had over a year to prepare for this eventuality.

It is the denial of access to a second opinion that is downright unfair. Many parents and students will come to see that in a few short weeks. Schools should be ready for that, and rather than taking a reputational and emotional hit to maintain Ofqual’s status quo, they should be prepared to admit their judgments are flawed, and direct parents’ ire where it belongs.  


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