Scrap ‘fatally flawed’ A-level grading, says Labour leader

Controversy over the handling of public examinations this year continues to grow

The government must scrap the “fatally flawed” public examination system this year and reinstate teachers’ estimated grades, the leader of the Labour party has said.

Keir Starmer said the government had “days, not weeks” to address the “injustice caused by the fatally flawed results system”. It was revealed yesterday that 280,000 teacher assessed A-level results in England were downgraded by an algorithm designed to tackle grade inflation.

In England, 39% of entries achieved a lower grade than teachers estimated – the exam regulator, Ofqual, is expected to publish its moderation algorithm, which lowered students’ estimated grades in line with their school’s historic A-level results.

That process has led to allegations of unfairness – critics say a highly talented cohort in a deprived school with historically poor A-level results may have grades lowered more than a cohort in a traditionally high-achieving school. The shadow education secretary, Kate Green, said a system which uses historic results risks “baking in inequality”.

Official data from Ofqual confirmed that private schools increased the proportion of students achieving top grades – A* and A – more than schools in the state sector. Secondary comprehensives, academies and sixth form colleges saw top grades increase by 2%, 1.7% and 0.3% respectively – while the proportion of top grades at independent schools soared by 4.7%. Overall, there was 2% rise in A* and A grades this year.

Official figures show that 9% of entries were A*, up from 7.8% in 2019; 27.9% were A* or A, up from 25.5%; and 78.4% were A* to C, up from 75.8%.

‘Scottish government-style U-turn’

The Telegraph today reported that a spokesperson for Ofqual accused some schools of submitting “implausibly high” predictions.

An official statement by the regulator said: “In general, the centre assessment grades (CAGs) submitted were optimistic. This is understandable and in line with the evidence from previous research.”

Ofqual’s report added that “recent interviews with teachers” revealed that many “tended to think about how each student would perform on a good day, while knowing that every year some students have bad days”. If left unchanged, moderators said this year’s results “would have been an unprecedented increase”.

Its final report argues there was no “systemic bias” against students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Ofqual figures show that students from low socio-economic groups were least likely to have A* and A grades lowered, but the most likely to have B to E grades lowered. Schools can challenge their results, but the appeals process relies on mock examination results, which has been criticised by many school leaders – including the heads of the Haberdashers’ schools.

A similar process of moderation used by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) provoked so much criticism that the government in Holyrood scrapped the system and reinstated teacher-assessed grades. Nicola Sturgeon’s education minister, John Swinney, even faced a vote of no confidence over his handling of Higher results.

Keir Starmer is today calling for “a Scottish government-style U-turn” on A-levels; young people in England, he said, “feel let down and betrayed”. He also accused the schools minister, Nick Gibb, of making “grossly misleading” claims when he said any downgrades “will be by just one grade”; in fact, 3.5% of grades were lowered by two or more grades.

“The unprecedented and chaotic circumstances created by the UK government’s mishandling of education during recent months mean that a return to teacher assessments is now the best option available. No young person should be at a detriment due to government incompetence. Time is running out. We need action in days, not weeks,” Mr Starmer added.

How flexible can universities be?

Ofqual wrote to universities yesterday to ask them “to be as flexible as you can towards students who might have missed out on their offer, for example by using contextual information”. There are, however, many reports of students missing out on places at elite universities.

June Hughes, a registrar at the University of Derby, told University Business that her employer already has a system for admitting students who “just missed out” on their grades – but, she added, the scope for admitting students was fixed and the university could not enrol students who fall significantly beneath the course requirements.

The University of Leicester announced it will offer places based on mock A-level results as well as published results, whichever is higher, regardless of whether a student decides to appeal.

Queen Mary University of London said it would exercise flexibility about admissions decisions this year “in light of the ambiguity about whether this year’s results are accurate reflections of each student’s academic ability” – and, in particular, would extend extra flexibility to students who qualified for free school meals.

The Office for Students said yesterday that universities “will show flexibility when making admissions decisions” and would use “contextual information” if students miss predicted grades. The OfS has said it also expects providers “to make progress” towards admitting students from underrepresented groups; it even went so far as to say “the decisions made this year about students from the most disadvantaged communities across the country will be crucial”.

But universities must balance access and participation plans against the likelihood of a student dropping out if a course is too demanding. The Guardian has reported this morning that some higher tariff universities have rejected students who missed their predicted grades.

Prof Sir Anton Muscatelli, the chair of the Russell Group, said: “It is a unique and unprecedented results season and our universities are being as flexible as possible with admissions. They are taking a range of factors into account to ensure no students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are unfairly affected and can benefit from the world-class higher education offered by Russell Group universities.”


Related news: More than half of sixth formers want post-qualification admissions, survey suggests

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