A-level results day: Gavin Williamson admits bright pupils risk being penalised as 'fiasco' fears grow

Kate Devlin
Whitehall Editor
Thursday 13 August 2020 09:10
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Education secretary Gavin Williamson says purpose of education is to equip people with skills for a 'meaningful job'

English Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has admitted high performing pupils risk being penalised by this year’s A-level system amid fears of chaos as students receive their results.

Critics have accused ministers of presiding over a fiasco which ‘beggars belief’ after exams were cancelled because of the coronavirus crisis.

A-level students are receiving their results today.

But official figures show nearly four in 10, 39 per cent, have had their mark downgraded through a moderation process.

A last-gasp attempt by ministers to head off criticism of how marks have been calculated stalled after Ofqual, the exams regulator, admitted it would not be able to clarify how the change would work until next week.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called for an urgent rethink saying nothing should be ruled out "including the u-turn that was forced on the Scottish Government last week". .

As students began to receive their results, Mr Williamson conceded that bright pupils in schools which did not traditionally achieve high marks risked losing out.

He announced that exam boards would attempt to identify ‘outliers’ and contact schools to suggest pupils should appeal their results.

But he refused to bow to pressure to perform a full u-turn, as Scottish ministers did last week.

He said the decision to modify results calculated by teachers, by taking into account how individual schools usually perform in the exams, was designed to ensure “maximum fairness”.

Pupils say they are prepared to take to the streets in protest at how their grades have been estimated, a stance that has been backed by the National Union of Students (NUS).

Mr Williamson told LBC: “There is a danger where you have an exceptionally high performing child in a low performing school (they will) be in a situation where they don’t get the grades they want to.

“What we have asked exams boards is where they think there may be outliers to be contacting the schools to talk with them to make sure appeals are put forward”.

But he also claimed pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds would have been at risk of losing out compared to their more middle-class counterparts if exams had been delayed rather than cancelled.

He told Times Radio: "If we'd been in a situation where we tried to delay the exams - and this is what happened in Ireland - what became apparent is that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, who maybe hadn't had the same level of support and help, would have been at a maybe high risk of not either turning up to those exams or not having had the same level of support in the run-up to those exams as children from more middle-class backgrounds."

He also ruled out further changes to the grading system, saying: "What is clear to me is there will be some youngsters, no matter how much we try to do in terms of this system to maximise the fairness of it, who don't get the grade they should have potentially have got.”

Mr Williamson said the number of students who received A and A* grades this year was slightly higher than last.

But unions warned the headline figure masked other results.

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

“We have received heartbreaking feedback from school leaders about grades being pulled down in a way that they feel to be utterly unfair and unfathomable. They are extremely concerned about the detrimental impact on their students.

“They worked very hard to provide accurate grades to the exam boards, carefully following all the guidance, and are dismayed that the statistical model then used to standardise these grades has had such a devastating impact. This is in terms of both the number of grades lowered, and some students’ results being pulled down by more than one grade.”

He added: “We will be working to understand more about what has happened, but our immediate impression is that the statistical process has proved to be far too blunt an instrument and has created clear injustices.”

Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green said: "Across the country, many young people will be opening their results today to find grades which undermine their work and their potential. It is a huge injustice that pupils will see their results downgraded just because of their postcode."

More students than last year have been accepted onto UK degree courses, official Ucas figures show.

In total 358,860 people from across the UK have had places confirmed, up 2.9 per cent on the same point last year, according to the university admissions service.

The figures show that 34,310 international students from outside the EU have been accepted (up 2 per cent), while acceptances from students within the EU have fallen by 15.2 per cent, to 22,430.

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