Here is a short story of Charlie, who was awarded A and B in Maths and Further Maths, respectively, in his A-levels by his teachers in 2020. His actual predicted grade in these two subjects was A* A*, so he not only missed out on gaining admission to Warwick University but has to carry these grades though his life, with all the ramifications for job prospects and other important issues. Just to prove to himself that the A and B were unjustified, Charlie sat the actual exam in the autumn when he was allowed to do so and got A* A*.
According to the Sunday Times, which covered the story, the lawyer – Mark Gaskell – who is acting on behalf of Charlie and a few other students, said: “We want some sort of certificate that Charlie can take though his life to say, they got it wrong… It would be nice to have an apology too.” Another student – Harry-James, lost his place on an apprenticeship programme under which PwC, the top accountancy firm, would have paid his full tuition fees throughout his four-year course at Birmingham University. Again, like Charlie, he scored an A* in Computer Science in his mocks but the school put forward an A to the exam board, which was awarded to him in the end. The school later went to the OCR exam board and asked them to increase the A they submitted to the A* he got in his mocks, so that the young man did not lose his place, but OCR refused.
How fair are teacher assessed grades?
The stories of these two young people highlight one critical element of the extent of the unfairness of the teacher-assessed grades for GCSE and A-level. The government gave what turns out to be absolute power to teachers to award grades as they deem fit in 2020. As a student, it was more of a post-code lottery in 2020, depending on the school you attended and how conscientious or bold your teachers were willing to be.
I would divide teachers/schools into two categories in respect of how the 2020 grades were awarded.
Category 1: these teachers, being the decent and conscientious professionals they are, went through a rigorous system of moderating the grades they were going to recommend for their students. They used mock results, what they knew of their students and the school’s previous exam result as some sort of benchmark. They were mindful of grade inflation and perhaps wanted to maintain the integrity of the exam system, and the reputation of their schools.
Category 2: these teachers decided to recommend to the exam board, any set of grades they could get away with, without due diligence or any rigour. Category 2 teachers’ gamble was rewarded, as 100% of the grades they recommended were allowed to prevail and their students were awarded those grades. Given that students of teachers in the first category above lost out, what incentive is there for the teachers to play the game in what they consider fair in the future.
It is more difficult to comprehend when you learn that some of these young people actually received higher grades in their mocks than what the teacher allocated them for their final A-level grades. I must say that, in most cases, the teachers are not really to blame, as they are humans and most of them did their best without prejudice or favouritism. However, some teachers did not, as they allowed their own prejudices and other less than fair factors to cloud their judgement. It must be said that the vast majority of teachers are fair and decent people, who genuinely have the interest of their students at heart.
What it at stake here is too big to allow the award of grades to be decided the way they were done in 2020. The problem is that we are in the same situation again as in 2020 and some experts say it will be worse in 2021 than it was in 2020. How can there be fairness when students at some schools are taking up to 50 mini-tests and some schools decide not to take any test. Quoting from the Sunday Times, Richard Harvey, admission tutor at the University of East Anglia said: “the system for awarding GCSE and A-level grades will be very unfair this year. We expect mass appeals… this year are shaping up to be even worse than last year.”
We live in an age of populism and the government will easily cave into any demand, reasonable or not. The issue is that there is no long-term planning and decisions are not being made in a way that is well thought through… People will be willing to understand and accept a decision, if they feel that it was made with careful thought and long-term thinking and they are convinced that there is no apparent fairer alternative.
Is the way grades are being awarded in 2021 any better than in 2020?
This year, 2021 is not looking any better as, although, the government laid down a set of criteria for teachers to use at tools in awarding GCSE and A-level grades, teachers can use mini tests, essays, coursework, classwork, homework and other methods they deem fit to award grades.
The worse part of this is the injustice done to the young people who would have got the top grade but for whom the teachers did not predict top grades, making them not only lose out on university places but having to live with those A-level grades for the rest of their lives, with all sorts of consequences In fact, many of these young people scored higher grades in their mocks exam than what their teacher awarded them. We are not speaking about the hopeless algorithm grades that were eventually abandoned, but about the teacher-assessed grades that ended up prevailing in the summer of 2020. The teacher-assessed grades are better than the useless data-led algorithm grades that lacked any individuality. However they are still bad, and a system that is fair and consistent for all candidates should have integrity.
Anyone can see from the two stories above why a group of nineteen-year-olds, supported by their parents, have resorted to legal action over the grades they were awarded in their A-levels in 2020. The world is a competitive place, and these young people will be competing with others who have been unjustifiably awarded higher grades than they might have got, had they taken the actual exams.
In my next blog post, I will be writing about the huge pressure being put on university places in 2021, making top universities reject students who have been predicted as many as four A*s