Family & Education

A-level results: 'Huge mess' as exams appeal guidance withdrawn

A-level students hold placards as they protest outside the Department for Education, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in London, Britain, August 16, 2020. Image copyright Reuters

The exams regulator is reviewing its guidance on how to appeal against A-level and GCSE grades using mock exam results - hours after publishing it.

On Saturday Ofqual set out what constituted a "valid" mock exam for students appealing against A-level results in England.

But the regulator has now suspended those criteria, and further information will be published "in due course".

One Tory MP described it as a "huge mess" that was "unacceptable".

A Department for Education statement on Sunday evening said that Ofqual "continues to consider how to best deliver the appeals process to give schools and pupils the clarity they need".

The statement added that it had been working with Ofqual to achieve an appeals process that was as fair as possible.

Neither A-level nor GCSE students were able to sit public exams this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, and almost 40% of A-level grades were marked down from teachers' predictions by an Ofqual algorithm.

The Conservative chairman of the education select committee, Robert Halfon, said the decision to review appeals guidance only announced on Saturday left students and schools in confusion.

"That is a huge mess. Goodness knows what is going on at Ofqual. It is the last thing we need at this time. This is just unacceptable in my view," he said.

"Students and teachers are incredibly anxious - particularly the students who are worried about their future. This has got to be sorted out.

"Ofqual shouldn't put things on websites, take them away, sow confusion. This is just not on and it has got to be changed."

Meanwhile, the statistical model used by Ofqual to determine grades faces two legal challenges, which argue students were unfairly judged on the school they attend.

Ofqual said earlier on Saturday that, where a written mock exam was not taken, it would consider other teacher assessments instead.

However, a statement published late on Saturday night on the regulator's website read: "Earlier today we published information about mock exam results in appeals.

"This policy is being reviewed by the Ofqual Board and further information will be published in due course."

Hundreds of students have held a demonstration in central London, demanding clarity over the appeals procedure.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionDemonstrating students said they feel "very let down" and that the grading is unfair

Holding placards - many of which called for the education secretary's resignation - they made their way through Westminster to the Department for Education.

Dozens of protesters sat on the front steps while others shouted "come out Gavin" and "justice for the working class".

Many of the demonstrators have called the downgrading of results "classist".

'A decision will have to be made'

"Baffling, mind-boggling, inadequate, shell-shocked" - these are the politer responses from school leaders, trying to make sense of Ofqual's bizarre retraction of its own rules over A-level appeals.

An early morning email from an otherwise respectable head teacher was titled: "WTF?"

Ofqual is meant to be an independent exams watchdog, but assuming it didn't overrule itself, who did pull the plug on what they'd announced for appeals over mock exams?

The non-decision still leaves students anxiously waiting to find out if they can appeal and claim their university places.

There is also irritation that ministers didn't head off this chaos in advance, or even when problems emerged in Scotland.

In the end, whether it's by Ofqual or the Department for Education or Number 10, a decision will have to be made.

Do they stick with the current grades and retro-fit them with a functioning appeals system? And will that withstand the unpicking of the fairness of results and legal challenges?

Or do they take the political hit - and the risk of creating other types of unfairness - by switching to teachers' predictions, as eventually happened in Scotland?

For ministers, it's time to turn over the exam paper and start their answers.

BBC political correspondent Jonathan Blake said the Department for Education appeared to be unaware of the change and the review of the criteria was likely to draw further criticism of the government's handling of the exams process in England.

The criteria under which Ofqual would accept a "valid mock assessment", set out on Saturday and then suspended hours later, had been stipulated as:

  • Supervised, unseen and undertaken in conditions intended to secure the work as the student's own
  • Either past assessments produced by the relevant exam board, or assessments developed by teachers
  • Taken under timed conditions
  • Completed before 20 March 2020, when schools and colleges were closed
  • Marked using a mark scheme provided by the relevant exam board
  • Graded in line with the exam board's examination standard

Before results were released, the Department for Education announced a "triple-lock", which meant that students could accept the grade calculated by Ofqual, appeal to receive a "valid mock result" or sit autumn exams.

However, Labour said that, under the new Ofqual criteria, some students would not be able to use their mock results as the basis for an appeal.

Labour's deputy leader Angela Rayner said Education Secretary Gavin Williamson had presided over a "complete and utter fiasco" and the prime minister was "watching from the sidelines while a generation of young people are being robbed of their future".

"No student should be worse off because of government failure," she said.

The government should return to teacher assessments and take "urgent action" to avoid repeating the issue with GCSEs on Thursday, Ms Rayner said.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Boris Johnson had been "invisible" during the results period.

"He needs to take personal responsibility and fix it," he said.

Legal challenges

Ofqual also faces two judicial review cases, with students challenging what they say is an "irrational, arbitrary" approach.

Student Curtis Parfitt-Ford was awarded his predicted grades but told the BBC he wants to challenge the "completely ridiculous" system.

Image caption Student Curtis Parfitt-Ford intends to challenge Ofqual in the courts

He said his lawyers, from Leigh Day and Foxglove, believe Ofqual acted outside its statutory responsibilities in basing judgements on schools' prior performance not "individual achievement and attainment".

Six students are also being supported by campaigning legal group the Good Law Project. One of the pupils, named only as Michael, saw his grades fall from a predicted three Bs to three E grades.

"It is abysmal to think that the government, whose job it is to lead this country in the right direction, has allowed an algorithm to determine the futures of thousands of students," he said.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told BBC Breakfast that way results have been handled this year is "simply not good enough".

He added that universities needed to stop being "insular and self-protective" and to "step up", offering places to disadvantaged students who had been downgraded.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionNina Bunting-Mitcham: "My first thought was, my life is completely over"

He also called for Ofqual to re-examine extreme cases, such as students downgraded from a teacher-assessed C to a failing U grade.

"Young people, after two years on a course, should really not be coming out with a fail when they haven't had the chance to sit the exam," Mr Barton said.

He said the "really big issue" is what has gone wrong with the statistical model used to determine results and how it might affect GCSEs, where there are larger numbers of disadvantaged students waiting for grades.

The government announced on Friday that schools would not have to pay to appeal against exam grades.

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