On Friday 20 March, I had an email exchange with a friendly professor at a top university. He confirmed that his prestigious course is heavily over subscribed. The course makes offers to double the number of students for whom it has places. Entry grades are set exceptionally high and only 60 per cent of places are taken by students who actually hit those grades. The remaining 40 per cent go to the nearest runners up. It’s a system of rationing and provided enough other factors are stable and the mechanism rigorous – it works.
A-level exam grades are currency. They can be traded advantageously and they have a crucial role as gate-keeper, allowing ‘the right students’ into university or appropriate training and careers. Hence my enquiry. For those of us who make it our business to be present at school for every results day, it was clear that cancelling the exams because of the pandemic would raise a serious question: How will we know who ‘the right students’ are now?
In late March schools were asked to set grades for their students and did so systematically. We were given clear guidance about the evidence that should be used. The process took us over a month. We gave a great deal of weight to mocks of course as they were sat in exam conditions with actual exam questions from previous years. But it was not so straight forward. There were many exceptions – from the student who was already quarantining when he took the final mock in mid March, to the student whose coursework was superb but whose exam anxiety was a genuine barrier to success. As with any good school, we had an abundance of information about each child. We knew them, we knew their aspirations and their actual university offers. We had the opportunity to give them the grades they deserved, grades which would enable them to realise their true potential.
Did we game the system? An educational chimps tea-party of lavish grade indulgence? Actually no. We knew that the grades and the system must – on point of principle – be transparent and worthy of scrutiny. Our Governors and Directors within our Multi Academy Trust approved the process (we have two schools with A-level candidates) there had to be fairness and equity between schools, between subjects, between classes. So the schools worked together to standardise assessment and we, the school leadership team, checked their checking.
Were our grades over-generous? In our case perhaps yes – but only very marginally and only because we simply could not factor in the random mess-up factor which can occur for an individual student under pressure in an exam. So a tiny uplift perhaps. Which is why I am so seriously aggrieved on behalf of my students that the reduction in grades has been so large. Thirty-nine percent across all A-levels, with 4 per cent dropped more than two grades. Some 65-69 per cent grades declined in some of our smaller more specialist subjects – driven by random anomalies in relatively small cohorts in 2017 and now imposed absurdly as a rule in 2020.
The demon algorithm and the hideously flawed ranking of students are, taken together, a very blunt tool indeed, designed to bring about swashbuckling downward swipes. But it did not have to be like this. The exam boards, Ofqual and the Government have known about the possibility of relative grade inflation for months. It would have been possible to go back to schools and moderate (sample their systems and assumptions) wherever there was a perceived anomaly well before results day. A decision must have been made not to do this – despite the promptings of the House of Commons Education Select Committee – and this is an error which should be acknowledged. In what other area of public provision, even during difficult circumstances, would it seem acceptable to set out guidelines but have no system of checks and balances to ensure they were being followed?
Having chosen not to address the problem, the Government cannot simply punish students for the oversight. Nor is it reasonable to use the lack of capacity in schools, as we return to on-site teaching in a context of Covid-uncertainty, as a means of ducking rigorous, well argued and formal challenge.
More than 4,000 Headteachers writing 50-250 appeals about what is a single central issue is a terrible use of valuable time and can only generate even more bad feeling. As it happens, in a quirk of fate, one of our schools was subject to the algorithm while at the other, teacher predicted grades were left untouched. The latter is a new school and this was its first year with an A-level cohort. No past results meant no application of the now discredited algorithm. Dealing with the fall-out from this particular issue is a headache all of its own – the issues of equity may be hard to unpick bearing in mind the system for setting the grades in the two schools was identical.
None of this was necessary. Yes results are a currency – but they inflate and deflate every year without significant harm being done. Often, you’d have to be quite a specialist to notice at all. Next year we already know there will be a reduction in the content of GCSE and A-level courses to take into account lost-learning time. It’s the equivalent of a fiscal adjustment just as annual shifts in grade boundaries are. If this is a good analogy, then perhaps allowing a higher grade profile for one year in 2020 is a form of quantitative easing – not ideal in the long term – but fine to get us over the hump. There will be a blip, and there is no doubting that universities may face a capacity challenge. But that is not such a bad thing to have to deal with especially given the alternative; thousands of disappointed A-level candidates flooding the dire jobs market. I have no doubt at all that, just as schools and businesses have been challenged to re-invent themselves during lock-down and Covid recovery, universities could rise to the challenge.
But A-level results are more than currency. They are also a passport to recognition and opportunity. I asked one of this year’s Oxbridge successes at Twyford, Marwa Mohammed, a straight A student who was unaccountably downgraded to a B in one of her subjects, why it is so important to her to appeal given that Oxford has honoured her place to read law despite the errant B. Her answer was persuasive. She is a strong individual, a great ambassador for the UK education system and a proud representative of her culturally diverse community in West London. She wants her fellow students to know, whatever their circumstances, they too can reasonably expect the very best.
I agree with her. And the Government could win back some credit by acknowledging both the problem and the opportunity. It is not too late to remedy the situation graciously as part of the vision for building back better and to do it before similar chaos and bad feeling engulfs the GCSEs.
My heartfelt suggestion, on behalf of Marwa and all this year’s cohort is to allow schools to first challenge the application of this wholly imperfect algorithm in specific subjects or across the whole school, if it is evident that the grades have been unreasonably distorted across the piece. This in addition to allowing students the opportunity for individual redress (though in the light of success in the former exercise – the latter might not be necessary). Universities, however high in the pecking order must hold places until the appeals are complete. And bearing in mind the operational impact of both of these, might it also be wise to reassure GCSE students that this painful lesson will not be repeated at all next Thursday?
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Alice Hudson is the Executive Head of the Twyford CoE Academies Trust.