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GCSE results: Schools minister admits he was warned algorithm might disadvantage poorer pupils - but claims it did not

Nick Gibb says he was ‘reassured’ after meeting with exam regulator

Zoe Tidman
Thursday 20 August 2020 14:10
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GCSE results: Schools minister admits he was warned algorithm might disadvantage poorer pupils, but claims it did not

The UK’s schools minister has said he was warned the now-scrapped model to determine grades could disadvantage poorer students – but claimed in the end it did not.

His comments came on GCSE results day, with pupils now receiving teacher-submitted grades rather than moderated ones, after the controversial model was scrapped following A-level results.

Tens of thousands of A-levels were downgraded in moderation, with experts warning poorer pupils would be affected most due to reassessments which consider schools’ past performances.

Nick Gibb said on Thursday that Sir Jon Coles, a former Department for Education director-general, raised concerns over potential issues with the system’s fairness in mid-July, which led him to call a meeting with Ofqual.

“He felt the model as devised would disadvantage young people from poorer families,” the schools minister told BBC Breakfast.

”We discussed that in great detail and I was reassured that it would not – and, in fact, it turned out it that did not.”

He added: “For all the problems we encountered, the downgrades of the grades did not disproportionately affect young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

The Times had reported Sir Jon wrote to Mr Williamson early last month to express concerns about the algorithm used by Ofqual.

When challenged on BBC Breakfast over the impact smaller class sizes had on the initial calculated grades, Mr Gibb said ”small cohorts” – for which teacher-assessed grades were relied more heavily upon – “can be in the independent sector or the state sector”.

Research last week claimed A-level grades at sixth form colleges were around 20 per cent more likely to be downgraded than those at independent schools.

The study found subjects more likely to be studied at independent schools – such as Latin and Classics – saw “rampant grade inflation”, according to the chief executive of the charity, UpReach, who led the research.

Student protests followed England’s A-level results day last week, with demonstrators calling for Mr Williamson to resign.

This followed similar demonstrations in Scotland, after figures showed more students from the most deprived backgrounds had their marks downgraded than those from the least deprived backgrounds.

Speaking about fairness in England’s original grading system, Mr Gibb told BBC Breakfast: “What I was concerned about always, right from the beginning ... was that the model should not disadvantage people from disadvantaged backgrounds – and that proved to be the case”.

However, he said: “It didn’t prove to be the case in Scotland where we did see this big gap between the adjustments that were made to the grades from disadvantaged backgrounds and others.”

He added. “We didn’t see that effect on the model.”

GCSEs were originally meant to be calculated grades using moderation, however this was scrapped amid the outcry over A-level results, which have also been changed to teacher-assessed grades higher than moderated ones.

Mr Williamson has apologised for the “distress” caused by the abandoned policy, which was intended to give fair results to pupils who could not sit exams because of the coronavirus crisis.

The education secretary said there had been “broad political consensus” across all parties that a standardisation model was needed for teachers’ assessments of grades after the disruption caused by Covid-19.

Mr Gibb also apologised on BBC Breakfast to students for the "pain, anxiety and uncertainty" caused by changes to grading system this year.

Thousands of BTEC students due to get their results on Thursday were told the afternoon before they will have to wait a while longer as their grades are recalculated following the changes with results for other qualifications.

Additional reporting by Press Association

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