A-level results an ‘omnishambles’, says headteacher

The head of Reigate Grammar School said the chaos of A-level results has compounded a bad year for students

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

In England, the moderation process meant 36% of entries had a lower grade than teachers predicted, 3% were down two grades and 2% increased. Ofqual said that it would publish its moderation algorithm, which is expected to run to 150 pages.

The overall results, across England, Northern Ireland and Wales, show record highs for A* and A grades. Ucas revealed that 30.2% of all 18-year-olds had been accepted to study at a higher education provider – including a record number of the most disadvantaged students.

Exam results show 9% of pupils got an A*, 27.9% got an A* or A and 78.4% got an A* to C. Girls once again outperformed boys, except in the number receiving A*s.

For the top A* and A grades, independent schools in England saw the greatest improvement on last year – up 4.7 percentage points. But whilst some independent schools surpassed previous performance, others had the worst A-level results they’ve had for years due to the moderation process.

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 In a dramatic U-turn, Scotland’s education minister, John Swinney, said all downgraded awards would be withdrawn and re-issued based solely on teacher or lecturer judgement.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.

“Very deep frustration”

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.

I think there will be a sense from school leaders of us being put in a position of being on the back foot. I think there will be very deep frustration around that on a day which is always emotionally highly charged, but its likely to be more so because of this announcement,” Mr Barton said.

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.”

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.”

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.

“There may be some merit in these ideas but who can tell? There are so many voices shouting in the fog. 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,” he said.

He 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 Williamson

Labours shadow education secretary, Kate Green, 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’ Schools 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”.

Some students will get the place they want with the grade they receive. They will be able to move forward and get on with their lives. For others, it will be a case of trying to buy time with their chosen universities as they and their schools negotiate this new aspect of the appeals process. Others may be placed straight into Clearing in which case its important to act quickly and begin ringing universities as soon as possible for placements this autumn. Teachers will help as much as they can.

This is going to be an A level results day like never before. People will be frustrated, potentially disappointed and for some the knowledge about what happens next is going to be delayed. As difficult as this may be, I would urge students to stay calm, believe in themselves and remember everything theyve achieved so far, ask their teachers to help them identify the next step and work towards it. This is just the beginning.”

Leave a Reply

Send an Invite...

Would you like to share this event with your friends and colleagues?

Would you like to share this report with your friends and colleagues?

You may enter up to three email addresses below to share this report