A-level results: How the government’s ‘chaotic’ response to exam cancellations unfolded

Downgrading of results causes anger and confusion for schools and students

Conrad Duncan
Sunday 16 August 2020 20:07
Changes to how exams are decided are 'shambolic', says Keir Starmer

The moderation of A-level results in England has caused anger and confusion for many students and schools after thousands of pupils had their predicted grades downgraded last week.

Exams for students were cancelled earlier this year due to closure of schools amid the coronavirus pandemic, with ministers promising a fair system to assign grades to pupils who would have taken A-level and GCSE exams.

However, many students have complained of being unfairly penalised by the moderating system – and opposition parties have accused the government of “incompetence” in its handling of the situation.

Ministers are now facing calls to fix the moderation system before GCSE results are announced this week – with a new round of controversy expected for the Department for Education.

The timeline below shows how the crisis unfolded:

Schools ordered to close and exams cancelled – 18 March

Boris Johnson announced on 18 March that schools would shut from Friday 20 March, until further notice due to the spread of coronavirus.

The prime minister said schools would be closed except for the function of looking after vulnerable children and the children of key workers.

Mr Johnson added that A-level and GCSE exams would not go ahead in England and Wales due to the closures – Northern Ireland and Scotland followed by cancelling exams on 19 March.

Further details released on exams system – 20 March

The government announced that Ofqual (the exam regulator) and exam boards would work with teachers to provide grades for students who were no longer taking exams this summer.

The Department for Education said it would work towards ensuring students are given grades which “fairly reflect the work that they have put in”.

It noted that Ofqual would develop a process for providing calculated grades and students would have an option to sit an exam early in the next academic year if they wished to.

In a sign of the issues that were to come, the department said it would aim “to ensure that the distribution of grades follows a similar pattern to that in other years” to avoid students facing a “systematic disadvantage” due to the circumstances.

“My priority now is to ensure no young person faces a barrier when it comes to moving on to the next stage of their lives – whether that’s further or higher education, an apprenticeship or a job,” Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said.

MPs warn calculated grades could unfairly hit disadvantaged and Bame pupils – 11 July

The Commons Education Committee warned in its report on the calculated grades system that disadvantaged or Bame students could be at risk of missing out on the grades they deserve due to unconscious bias in the moderating system.

Robert Halfon, the committee’s chair, said he recognised there was no perfect way to award grades this year but noted “serious worries” about the fairness of the model developed by Ofqual.

“There is a risk it will lead to unfair bias and discrimination against already disadvantaged groups,” Mr Halfon added.

An Ofqual spokesperson said the model had been “extensively tested” to ensure students would receive “the fairest most accurate results”.

Thousands of Scottish pupils see exams results downgraded – 4 August

Thousands of students in Scotland had their exam results downgraded after the country’s exam body lowered more than 100,000 estimated grades – about 25 per cent of the total.

Although the pass rate rose overall, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) faced accusations of bias after figures showed more students from the most deprived backgrounds had their marks downgraded than those from the least deprived backgrounds.

It was suggested that the system unfairly penalised students who came from schools which had not previously performed well in exams.

The SQA and the Scottish government stood by the results.

A-level results: Students protest outside Downing Street amid growing pressure for Gavin Williamson to resign

Scottish government U-turns on results – 11 August

Following outcry from pupils, Scotland’s education secretary John Swinney agreed to accept teacher’s estimates for grades and upgraded exam results for tens of thousands of students.

The U-turn came amid pressure on Mr Swinney to resign, with opposition parties in Scotland pushing for a vote of no confidence in him.

The education secretary apologised for the “feeling of unfairness” caused by the downgrading of results and admitted the Scottish government had made a mistake.

Nearly 40 per cent of A-level results in England downgraded – 13 August

Official figures showed nearly 40 per cent of teacher-assessed grades in England had been downgraded by Ofqual’s moderation algorithm, sparking anger among schools and students.

Mr Williamson faced backlash over data which showed private schools had increased the proportion of students being awarded top grades by more than double that of state schools.

Mr Johnson insisted the system had produced a “robust set of grades” and said students who were unhappy with their results could appeal or take a resit exam this autumn.

Labour called for A-level appeals to be made free this year and then one day later called for the UK government to make a U-turn like the Scottish government to reinstate teacher-assessed marks for students who had been downgraded.

A-level appeals in England to be made free – 15 August

The government said it would cover the cost for schools in England appealing against A-level exam results awarded by Ofqual.

Mr Williamson said ministers wanted to ensure headteachers were not deterred from making appeals due to the cost of the process.

Ofqual added that students in England would be able to use coursework as well as mock exam results to appeal their grades.

Ofqual suspends criteria for exam appeals – 15 August

Just hours after releasing its new policy for exam appeals, Ofqual suspended its guidance for students and said it was reviewing the new system.

The exam regulator said further information on the policy would be released “in due course” but no reason for the decision was immediately given.

With growing confusion over the system, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called on Mr Johnson to take “personal responsibility” for the crisis and find a solution.

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