A-levels: DfE’s decision on mock results met with dismay by sector

Gavin Williamson says ‘triple-lock system’ will guarantee fairness for students

Education secretary Gavin Williamson last night announced that pupils in England could use their mock exam results if they feel their calculated grades are wrong – a move swiftly met with dismay by senior figures in higher education.

The announcement came amid growing unease at Westminster over tomorrow’s A-level results and both follows yesterday’s U-turn by Scottish education secretary John Swinney, and universities minister Michelle Donelan’s letter to vice-chancellors requesting flexibility over admissions.

Students will now be allowed to use a valid mock result through the appeals process, by notifying their school or college.

Mr Williamson described the move as a ‘triple lock’ process: students could accept their calculated grade, appeal to receive a valid mock result, or sit exams in the autumn. All outcomes will hold the same value for universities, colleges and employers, he said.

He announced he has asked Ofqual to determine how and when valid mock results can be used to calculate grades and that £30million will be earmarked to help schools cover entry fees for the autumn exams.

“Every young person waiting for their results wants to know they have been treated fairly,” said Mr Williamson.

“By ensuring students have the safety net of their mock results, as well as the chance of sitting autumn exams, we are creating a triple lock process to ensure confidence and fairness in the system.

“No one wanted to cancel exams – they are the best form of assessment, but the disruption caused by Covid-19 meant they were not possible.

“This triple lock system will help provide reassurance to students and ensure they are able to progress with the next stage of their lives.”

We are seeking urgent clarification from the Department for Education on a range of issues – Julia Buckingham, UUK

The last-minute U-turn has drawn strong criticism from senior HE bodies, including Universities UK, the NUS and the Education Policy Institute.

Prof Julia Buckingham, who is also vice-chancellor of Brunel University London, said: “This last-minute policy change presents a number of challenges for universities and we are seeking urgent clarification from the Department for Education on a range of issues including the likely scale and timing of appeals.”

She told students on the eve of A-level results “to carry on as planned” and “don’t panic”.

UUK members “will be as flexible as they can in these unusual circumstances”, she added

The use of mock exams results risks making a mockery of the whole system – Larissa Kennedy, NUS

The NUS branded the change “a botched attempt at a solution”, which would “lock in inequality”. Its national president has lobbied the government in Westminster to follow the example set by its counterpart in Holyrood and abandon the moderation process entirely. Although she welcomed the announcement that autumn retakes would be free, Larissa Kennedy concluded: “The rest of the triple lock approach is wrong.”

“The use of mock exams results risks making a mockery of the whole system, given the lack of a standard approach to mock exams and the fact they are not taken by all candidates. This is a botched attempt at a solution which does not fix the problem created by the classist, racist moderation system, that students’ results will be based on where they live not a true reflection of their own abilities,” she added.

The Education Policy Institute (EPI) called the DfE’s latest decision confusing, and said it did not solve the issue of fairness.

“While the suspension of national exams this year has made it challenging to devise a fair grading system, it is highly unsatisfactory that the government is announcing a change to the awarding of grades less than 48 hours before A level results are due to be published,” said David Laws, EPI’s executive chairman.

Ofqual now faces the huge task of attempting to set what the standards for a valid mock result will be – David Laws, EPI

“The government is in danger of creating confusion for students, parents and universities by talking of a ‘triple lock’, including the implied option for students to choose to receive their ‘mock’ grade. In fact, the use of a mock grade seems to only be part of an appeals process, rather than being a guarantee.

“Given the inconsistent ways in which they are used by schools, offering a mock grade option also does very little to solve the question of fairness. Ofqual now faces the huge task of attempting to set what the standards for a valid mock result will be.

“The Department for Education and Ofqual need to ensure that exam results are fair to individual students, including those from ethnic minority and disadvantaged backgrounds. It is also important that national results are credible and not excessively out of line with what might reasonably have been expected for this group of students.

“Given the chaos over Scotland’s exam results this year, there needs to be close scrutiny in England of A-level and GCSE results to ensure these objectives are being secured.

“In spite of the appeals process, there may well be some students this year who are not fairly served by the attempt to award exam grades without holding exams. It is now essential that universities, schools and colleges act flexibly and pragmatically to ensure that students who might unfairly lose out on opportunities are protected. This means being particularly sensitive where students have missed their targets by a single grade.

“It is important that the qualifications system should have credibility. But it is even more important that individual students should not have their future prospects damaged unfairly due to the exceptional circumstances of this year.”

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