A-level U-turn: teacher-assessed grades reinstated across UK

Students will be able to keep their school-estimated grade – or the moderated grade, whichever is higher

All teacher-assessed A-level results will be reinstated, Ofqual has announced, after the exam regulator decided to ditch its moderation algorithm.

Students will be able to keep the grade their school or college estimated – or the moderated grade, whichever is higher.

Ofqual chairman Roger Taylor said in a statement: “We understand this has been a distressing time for students, who were awarded exam results last week for exams they never took. The pandemic has created circumstances no one could have ever imagined or wished for. We want to now take steps to remove as much stress and uncertainty for young people as possible – and to free up heads and teachers to work towards the important task of getting all schools open in two weeks.

In his statement, the Ofqual chief added: “There was no easy solution to the problem of awarding exam results when no exams have taken place. Ofqual was asked by the secretary of state to develop a system for awarding calculated grades, which maintained standards and ensured that grades were awarded broadly in line with previous years. Our goal has always been to protect the trust that the public rightly has in educational qualifications.

Ofqual said it was “already working with the Department for Education, universities and everyone else affected by this issue”.

I am sorry for the distress this has caused young people and their parents – Gavin Williamson

Following the announcement of the A-level U-turn, education secretary Gavin Williamson said:

“This has been an extraordinarily difficult year for young people who were unable to take their exams.

“We worked with Ofqual to construct the fairest possible model, but it is clear that the process of allocating grades has resulted in more significant inconsistencies than can be resolved through an appeals process.

“We now believe it is better to offer young people and parents certainty by moving to teacher assessed grades for both A and AS level and GCSE results.

“I am sorry for the distress this has caused young people and their parents but hope this announcement will now provide the certainty and reassurance they deserve.”

Mr Williamson had previously defended the model on several occasions. Writing in the Daily Telegraph last week, 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”. 

Ucas responded to the announcement by saying it was “now working with universities, colleges and schools to support students to understand their options and achieve their place in higher education.

“At the moment, 69% (193,420) of 18 year old main scheme applicants across the UK are placed with their first choice university, which is higher than at the same point last year.

“For those students who were not placed with their firm (or insurance) choice university, our advice is that you don’t need to make your decision immediately. Speak with your parents, guardians and teachers and then your first conversation will need to be to your firm (or insurance) choice university. Once your university has your ‘Centre Assessed Grades (CAG)’ via exam bodies they can make a decision as to whether there is a place at your preferred choice.

“We will be issuing new advice for students and schools and this will be sent directly to students as soon as they are able to take a decision.

Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland

Earlier today, the Welsh government announced that A-level and GCSE grades would be awarded to students in Wales on the basis of the teacher assessments.

Welsh education minister, Kirsty Williams, added: “For those young people, for whom our system produced higher grades than those predicted by teachers, the higher grades will stand. Maintaining standards is not new for 2020, it is a feature of awarding qualifications every year in Wales, and across the UK. However, it is clear that maintaining confidence in our qualifications whilst being fair to students requires this difficult decision.”

Northern Ireland this morning ditched the moderation algorithm for GCSE and A-level students.

Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon last week apologised over downgraded exam results and reinstated teacher-assessed grades for National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher qualifications.

‘This will cause challenges’ – sector reaction to A-level U-turn

Williamson announced that temporary student number controls would also be lifted, less than three months after they were formally introduced for the 2020 admissions cycle.

In response to today’s news, Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK said: “Today’s policy change will mean that more students will have the grades that match the offer of their first choice university.

“This will cause challenges at this late stage in the admissions process – capacity, staffing, placements and facilities – particularly with the social distance measures in place. Universities will do everything they can to work through these issues in the days ahead. The government will need to step up and support universities through the challenges created by this late policy change. We are seeking urgent clarification and advice from government on a number of crucial issues.

“Almost 70% of students are already placed with their first-choice institution, but those who are not should think carefully about their next steps, speak to their parents, guardians and teachers and get in to contact with their preferred university to advise on their options.”

Dr Tim Bradshaw, CEO of the Russell Group – some of whose members are handling up to 1,000 appeals from applicants already – called for “urgent clarification from government” on support available to universities to cope with the ever-changing situation, and its implications for campus accommodation, planning course provision and Covid-19-related health and safety.

“Our universities have been working hard to be as flexible and compassionate as possible to help students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, so offer holders are not unfairly affected,” said Dr Bradshaw. “We firmly believe that everyone who has the drive and determination to study at university should have the opportunity do so.

We now need urgent clarification from government on the additional support it will provide to help universities with the expected increases in student numbers – Dr Tim Bradshaw, Russell Group

“Many Russell Group universities have increased admissions plans so they can take more students this year and ensure as many young people as possible can benefit from the skills and knowledge that a high quality university education provides. Our universities have accepted students who narrowly missed out on the grades they needed, have held places open for those appealing their results or have been able to guarantee places on courses for the next academic year. UCAS daily clearing data shows that acceptances at higher tariff institutions are higher this year compared to the same time last year.

“We know the changing situation is creating uncertainty for students and universities. However there are limits to what can be done by the university sector alone to address that uncertainty without stretching resources to the point that it undermines the experience for all, not to mention ensuring students and staff are kept safe as we follow the steps needed to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. There are also practical constraints on capacity for programmes that depend on specialist facilities or placements.

“We now need urgent clarification from government on the additional support it will provide to help universities with the expected increases in student numbers, particularly for high cost subjects such as chemistry, medicine and engineering.”

We will not forget this, nor will our efforts stop here. This simply isn’t good enough – Larissa Kennedy, NUS

Larissa Kennedy, NUS President, cheered the news but demanded an overhaul of the whole exam system: “This victory belongs to every student who told their story, who lobbied the government and who took to the streets in the face of a classist, racist, ableist moderation system.

“The government have not fixed this mess yet. This situation has merely unmasked a discriminatory system that it has been complicit in long before this year – one that under-funds our schools, colleges and universities meaning that, year on year, education has been a postcode lottery. Every year students have to contend with a university admissions system that establishes additional barriers to entry for already marginalised groups through the use of predicted grades.

“Over the past week, working class students, students of colour and disabled students lost hard fought for university places. Many of those students affected have reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted by an assessment system that reproduces educational injustice and the uncertainty this has produced.

“We will not forget this, nor will our efforts stop here. This simply isn’t good enough. We demand #JusticeForEducation in every postcode, every year. That means we need to overhaul our system of exams and grading, so that every student is given a fair chance to succeed and invest in education to end educational injustice once and for all.”

In the cold light of day, there will need to be a careful post-mortem to ensure this year’s fiasco never happens again – Nick Hillman, Hepi

Responding to the announcement, Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) said:

“This news will come as a relief to hundreds of thousands of students, their teachers and their parents. U-turns are never easy but sometimes they are better than the alternatives. The last few days are a reminder that education is not about delivering the right results on average over a whole year group – it is about recognising individual achievements fairly.

“The new policy is better than the previous one but it will still be a headache for universities. A normal admissions round lasts for months, yet the rules for this year’s round have been torn up just a few weeks before term starts. Institutions will do their best but there are some limits on safe expansion. Nonetheless, hopefully the upheaval will be worth it, with more people finding a place on the right course for them.

“In the cold light of day, there will need to be a careful post-mortem to ensure this year’s fiasco never happens again.’

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