2020 A-level grades: headteachers criticise ‘systematically unfair’ model

The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference responds to Ofqual’s announcement on adjusting A-level grades downwards, and asks for a free appeals process

Leading figures from the independent school sector have criticised Ofqual’s “systematically unfair” model for awarding A-level grades in 2020.

The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) appeal for “justice for individual pupils” follows yesterday’s announcement from the exam regulator that many A-level grades would be adjusted downwards due to schools submitting grades that were “higher than expected”.

Summer exams were cancelled this year as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown. In April, Ofqual published its standardisation model by which grades would be awarded based on a combination of teacher assessment, class ranking and the past performance of pupils and their schools.

Now that the deadline has passed for schools to submit their centre assessment grades and rank order information, Ofqual has provided more information about how the model will operate, announcing yesterday that “national results this summer may be slightly higher than last year’s, approaching an increase of 1% GCSE and around 2% for A level, although we will make sure there is not any significant change in year on year results for any subject which would undermine the value of the qualifications for progression”.

“Results for students will therefore almost always be broadly in line with centres’ and teachers’ expectations, reflecting the skills, professionalism and integrity of those involved.”

On average, centres have submitted grades that are higher than would be expected. That is not surprising, given that the circumstances meant teachers were not given an opportunity to develop a common approach to grading in advance; and they naturally want to do their best for their students – Ofqual

However, the exam regulator added, “a substantial number” of students will receive at least one grade that has been adjusted as a result of the standardisation process.

Most of these will be downwards because, says Ofqual “on average, centres have submitted grades that are higher than would be expected. That is not surprising, given that the circumstances meant teachers were not given an opportunity to develop a common approach to grading in advance; and they naturally want to do their best for their students.”

If it did not adjust grades downwards, warns Ofqual, “we would see results for 2020 that were, on average, 12 percentage points better than in 2019 at A level and 9 percentage points at GCSE; with greater peaks at some key grades such as 4 (at GCSE) and B (at A level). Improvement on such a scale in a single year has never occurred and to allow it would significantly undermine the value of these grades for students”.

 

Reacting to the announcement, Ian Power, general secretary of HMC, said:

“Heads everywhere will recognise that the interruption to schooling this year presented the exam regulator with a difficult job, and we appreciate the efforts they have put in to ensuring every candidate has a calculated grade.

“Exam results matter. They are the key which opens the door to a young person’s next stage of life, remaining on their CVs forever. Receiving a  B instead of an A at A Level can lose a university place, and a 3 instead of a 4 at GCSE can mean moving on or retaking a course. So it is imperative that they are accurate.

The only way of ensuring justice for individual pupils is to allow for a free appeals process which allows schools to produce robust evidence to challenge grades which are not a fair reflection of the individual pupil’s ability – Ian Power, HMC

“However, we fear that thousands of pupils will not receive the right grade this year. This is because the vast majority of grades awarded are being calculated by the exam regulator, using a statistical model which essentially looks at a school’s historic performance and puts grade boundaries over the school’s rank order. This is a necessary but essentially blunt instrument.

“The only way of ensuring justice for individual pupils is to allow for a free appeals process which allows schools to produce robust evidence to challenge grades which are not a fair reflection of the individual pupil’s ability.

“Currently this is available to pupils in Scotland and Ireland, but not in England and Wales. This is systematically unfair to hundreds of thousands of young people and we fail to understand why Ofqual has insisted on closing off this route despite calls from schools and the Education Select Committee.

“We call on Ofqual to change their minds and show that what matters to government is fairness to each young person who has already suffered setbacks as a result of this terrible pandemic.”

Ofqual said it would publish the precise statistical formulas being used to grade GCSEs and A-levels on results days.


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