The A level results fiasco

By Mike Phipps

The A level results are out and like everything else connected with the coronavirus crisis, the government has made a complete hash of things. Teachers were asked not just to grade their students, but to rank them in order – a particularly invidious practice which has no basis in real world exams. Many will now be wondering why they bothered in the first place, given that the grades have been massaged down by an algorithm based on the student’s previous results and the school’s past performance.

Previous results in many subjects – Politics, Psychology, Sociology, History of Art, Media or Film Studies, to name a few – have no application for A level results if they are not widely taught at GCSE. Secretary of State Gavin Williamson, a man clearly out of his depth, as in every other Cabinet post he has held, says he is “incredibly sorry”. But unlike the Scottish government, which has reinstated the teachers’ assessments of their students, the only change so far to the proposed allocation of grades has been to allow Mock exam results to be factored in. Of course, most students are not as well prepared for their Mocks as they are for the real thing, where they hope to improve their grade. So this concession is minimal.

In Wales, AS results can be applied, if the overall A level grade awarded is lower. But many students in England do not sit AS exams. That leaves Mock exam grades – assuming the regulator can be convinced they were sat in exam conditions – or sitting a fresh exam in the autumn and taking a year out in the process.

Students will feel cheated – and possibly demoralised and depressed – as if they haven’t had enough to put up with over the last six months. Teachers, whose grading has been largely ignored, stand branded as liars and frauds. Some students, graded B by their teachers, have been awarded U, a fail, presumably on the grounds that schools were not failing enough students so the algorithm had to compensate for that.  Schools Minister Nick Gibb admitted that nearly 40% of A-level grade recommendations by teachers were expected to be downgraded. And that’s exactly how it turned out.

One teacher told Huffpost UK: “I sat down with colleagues and we looked at every student in turn and all their marks throughout the two years, mock results, coursework and how they were performing in the final weeks before lockdown. To see these grades overruled and dismissed, hundreds of miles from our communities and without seeing any written work that these students were capable off, is heartbreaking.”

Worse, as in Scotland, the algorithm discriminates against students from poorer backgrounds. Private schools got a far larger rise in the top grades than others. The Sixth Form Colleges Association called the system “flawed and unreliable” after almost all colleges said grades were lower or much lower than predicted. A third of college principals also reported results lower or “dramatically lower” than their historic exam performance.

The credibility crisis of this year’s A level results is not simply down to COVID. A few years ago, the government, as part of its war on ‘easier A levels’, scrapped modular exams, where students can take different modules throughout the two year course, in favour of one final exam at the end of two years. The old system was favoured by education experts, arrogantly dismissed by then Secretary of State Michael Gove as the “blob”.  But it would have provided a far more reliable guide to final performance than a flawed algorithm.

Furthermore, alternatives were available. One Guardian letter observed: “In previous years, examination boards used an expert team of moderators (aka markers and examiners) to determine exam results. When I heard this year’s exams were to be moderated, I naively assumed this team would check the teachers’ assessments against historical data and evidence from individual students. These moderators would have had the chance to look more closely within schools and across schools by subject and by student to try to reach a fair set of marks. This did not happen. Instead, an algorithmic adjustment has been used – an adjustment that does not require the human moderators and is presumably much cheaper to implement.”

Schools have been told they can appeal. But to do they must finger other students whose grades could go down as a result. This was the true purpose of the requirement that teachers rank their students in order of ability in the first place.

Keir Starmer called the government’s last minute changes to the process “shambolic” and says the whole system needs a re-think. He did not rule out standing by the original teacher assessments – which hardly constitutes any serious pressure on the government. In the absence of any other credible plan, this would seem to be the clearest and fairest solution – as the Scottish government recognised in its U-turn.

Meanwhile this government continues to contaminate everything it touches, regardless of the disruptive impact on hundreds of thousands of lives. Resignations are clearly in order, but Johnson’s crew do not know the meaning of the word shame.