Nothing can be more individualistic than examinations. The idea of using some algorithm without rigorous evaluation of individual students is not only insensitive and unjust, but grossly inadequate. Hence, the way in which A-level grades have awarded this year is unfit for purpose. I could not believe my ears and eyes when I heard on places like the BBC or Channel 4 the extent of the misallocation of A-level grades. Reading in the Sunday Times of the case of a student who was predicted an A by the teachers and ended up with a U grade is just unfathomable.

Given the importance of the A-level grade and the long-term ramifications for the future of the young people who have been treated unjustly, this is unacceptable and should never be allowed to prevail. It seems that the people in charge of the fiasco grossly underestimated the importance that certain families place on examination results. For so many, education comes next after health, and this has been verified by the response we’ve seen to the handling of the A-level exam results.

As reported on Radio 4 this morning, the statement by the government that “hundreds of thousands of young people got the grades they need…” is shocking. Where is the ambition? Where is the aspiration? Where is justice? This statement is similar to saying that “millions of people have survived the coronavirus pandemic” so it’s all OK… It appears that young people are being treated as numbers and not as individuals, with each teenager being a unique person and having his or her own story to tell.

Given what is at stake, justice must be done to bright young people who have been penalised in this A-level disaster. Despite the fact that I am a teacher, the idea of teacher assessment with no element of compulsory documented evidence to back up the teacher’s prediction is terrible in my view. What we have now is even worse. The way the A-level results have been awarded started with a flawed base – undocumented teacher’s assessment – and ended up with an even more terrible component, an inadequate “algorithm”.

The reality is that many eighteen-year-olds are celebrating a set of grades that they would not have otherwise achieved  had they done the exams. It is not their fault, it is we adults who are to blame, as we’ve messed up. This is very bad; however, what is a lot worse is that many bright teenagers have been condemned to the scrap heap. They have not only had their confidence shattered, but they have been denied the opportunity to fulfil their dreams. I’m all for  society doing all it can to build resilience and character in young people, but this is not relevant in this case, as this all about injustice and can be quite easily rectified. As I mentioned elsewhere, grade inflation is awful, but better than what we have now.

Legal actions are being planned by many parents and student groups  to challenge the A-level grades that have been awarded to many young people and the algorithm used. This is not at all surprising to me. What surprises me most is that not as many people as I anticipated have decided to challenge the grades awarded.

The group of students who appear  to be coming off worse in this are those in the middle.  Those young people who attend grammar schools, good comprehensives and sixth form colleges. It appears to me that teenagers from homes with very high aspiration are affected disproportionally. Differential in percentage terms between different sector of the sixth form sectors is slight, as we are taking about 2 or 3% difference, but when you put names and faces to that, we are speaking about thousands of teenagers and their families. The percentage increase in A-level grades this year for a typical or lower performing comprehensive schools and private schools is  a little higher than   for sixth form colleges, grammar schools and the very good comprehensives. Please note that academies are comprehensive schools.

It is terrible for every group as a whole, as the idea of generalising  and saying things like, private schools come off better is irrelevant, and   incorrect. Yes, there is the highest increase due to an algorithm that benefits small cohorts, a category into which many private schools fall. Obviously, no deep thought was given to this idea before using the specific computer module they used in the name of algorithm. What matters most is individual stories and every sector is affected. I know of private school students whose A-level exam results have been downgraded and I also know of students in grammar schools who have received up to two grades lower than they could have.

Recommendations for rectifying the A-level exam mess and prevention in the future

  • The injustice that has been done must be rectified swiftly. The obvious way is to allow mocks or teacher recommendation to prevail. Yes, at the cost of grade inflation, which is awful, but the injustice we currently have is worse
  • Mock exams should be taken more seriously by schools and students, with the exams conducted and marked under strict exam conditions, and with good record keeping and documentation
  • Submission of predicted grades to the exam board every year should be mandatory. This helps to judge the accuracy and see patterns of predicted grades by individual schools. I guess universities are doing this already…
  • Schools must go back in September, but, in addition, Online/Offline integration of teaching is paramount for the future. This has already started in many schools, but it ought to be the norm
  • Lessons to be learnt from other countries such as Germany, where the exams went ahead, or the case of many British universities where exams were conducted online with a reduced content in some cases. Online exams were also done by many top universities in Britain, such as Imperial and Sheffield. Some students performed better that they would have otherwise done, as they took advantage of the lockdown to study.
  • Exam cancellation should be avoided at all cost. The number of examinations for each subject and the content could be reduced if need be or the exams postponed, but not a blanket cancellation, with the potential to result in the mess we are in at present.
  • In the extreme case that exams are cancelled, schools should do it in a way that young people are not left for five months without studying, given that the three to four-month period before the A-level and GCSE are the most intense, with genuine learning and discovery going on, as a concomitant of revision for exams.

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  1. Andy on August 17, 2020 at 1:08 pm

    Hi, this article is very good and addresses nowadays issues with education system. My problem is that teachers predicted ABB in December when my son applied for universities and the teachers assessment grades now have fallen to BDE though it was lockdown from March. Can you please advise what would be my best course of action considering that teachers assessment grades are about to seal everything off. Thank you

  2. Idris Musty on August 18, 2020 at 7:05 am

    Hello and thank you for your comment. The fact that teachers predicted high grades when your son applied to universities must have been because they feel that your son is capable of getting those grades. Perhaps they lower the prediction for his A-level after exams’ cancellation due to bad mock or other tests he did after the initial prediction. It’s good that the government has backed down and instructed that teacher’s predicted grade must go through; however, it is highly unlikely that they will back down further and allow the grade that was originally forecast for UCAS application. What I’d advise at this stage to to try and see the best university he can get into with the grades he has, as the university where the degree is awarded matters more than the course he studies, with the exception of medicine and law. It is better to go into a foundation year at a top university, if he can get one than to go to just any university. The other option is to take a year out. All the best to your son.

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