Universities promise flexibility amid A-level disarray

Universities UK reassured disappointed A-level students that “many opportunities are still available to you”

Students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are receiving the results of their A-level, AS-level and technical qualifications today. 

The exam watchdog, Ofqual, has already announced a 2% rise in A* and A grades this year at A-level and the university admissions service, Ucas, revealed this morning that 30.2% (210,260 students) of all 18-year-olds have been accepted to study at a higher education provider – including a record number of the most disadvantaged students.

Controversy continues over the way results have been decided this year and headteachers are angry at the use of mock exam grades.

Official figures show that 9% of entries were A*, up from 7.8% in 2019; 27.9% A* or A, up from 25.5%; and 78.4% were A* to C, up from 75.8%. Girls have once again outperformed boys, except in the number receiving A*s.

Ofqual confirmed this morning 36% of entries were downgraded by one grade, 3.5% were downgraded by two grades or more, and 2% were upgraded. The regulator said that it would publish its moderation algorithm, which is expected to run to 150 pages.  

A similar process of grade moderation in Scotland resulted in 124,000 grade recommendations being lowered by the Scottish Qualifications Agency (SQA). In a dramatic U-turn, Scotland’s education minister, John Swinney, said all downgraded awards would be withdrawn and re-issued based solely on teacher or lecturer judgement.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson announced on Tuesday night 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 many figures with the education sector. 

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.

A-level results an “omnishambles”, says headteacher

The last-minute U-turn has drawn criticism from Universities UK, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), the headteachers’ union.

Prof Julia Buckingham, president of UUK, said the last-minute policy change “presents a number of challenges for universities” who are now “seeking urgent clarification from the Department for Education on a range of issues”.

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.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL, said headteachers lacked information about how the appeals process would work. 

MrBarton, leader of the ASCL head teachers’ union said: “While there has been an overall increase in top grades, we are very concerned that this disguises a great deal of volatility among the results at school and student level.”

EPI chief executive David Laws said: “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.” 

According to analysis by EPI, independent schools in England saw the greatest improvement on last year’s results, with A* and A grades up 4.7 percentage points.

Comprehensives, academies and colleges were up 2, 1.7 and 0.3 percentage points on last year respectively.

The NUS 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.”

Gill Burbridge, the principal of Leyton Sixth Form College, revealed that 47% of grades submitted by her college had been lowered. We were really rigorous in our standardisation process. We knew that we would be judged in relation to our three-year averages so we made sure that the centres test grades were in keeping with that three-year average. So I am, frankly, appalled,” she said. 

The head of Reigate Grammar School, Shaun Fenton, described A-level results this year as “an omnishambles”.

He said the biggest mistake was not incorporating scope for an appeals process from the beginning, but he also blamed last-minute U-turns for undermining confidence in the system.

“Frankly, I have little confidence that grades awarded this week will still be the same in a weeks time. A week is a long time. This plays havoc with university decisions; our students deserve better.”

Mr Fenton said Ofqual should announce “a generous and significant invitation for a rapid appeals process, on a range of reasonable grounds so that where their generally good systematic review of CAGS has resulted in an unfair result then that result can be reviewed and changed”.

Pressure mounts on education secretary

Labours shadow education secretary labelled Mr Williamson’s approach to A-level exams as “chaotic”. She urged ministers to announce an appeals system for individual students, adding: “It is a huge injustice that pupils will see their results downgraded just because of their postcode.”

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Mr Williamson, ruled out following Scotland’s decision to dispense with the moderation system entirely. He warned this would inflate grades, “devalue” exam results and harm students’ “future career prospects”. 

Mr Williamson apologised to every child for the disruption to their education caused by Covid-19, and admitted there were things we would take a different approach on”.

Pressure on Williamson mounted after his counterpart in Wales, Kirsty Williams, announced safeguards for students A-level grades.

The Welsh education minister, said: I am giving a guarantee that a learners final A-level grade cannot be lower than their AS-grade. If a student receives a final grade tomorrow that is below that of their previous AS grade, then a revised grade will be issued automatically.”

Girls School Association president Jane Prescott urged teachers and students to “stay calm” amid the confusion of last-minute changes to the grading procedures for A-levels.

She said the ‘triple lock’ would “only serve to cause more confusion” and demonstrated “a misunderstanding of what mock exams really are”.

She expressed some sympathy with Ofqual who “had to come up with a way of calculating grades that maintains the credibility of such a highly-regarded qualification as the A-level, and are now faced with the added complication of having to build mock exam results into the appeal process”.

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