A-level and GCSE U-turn welcomed: Students to get the grades their teachers predicted - plus Ofqual’s statement in full
A-level and GCSE students in England will now be given the grades they were predicted by teachers, following widespread criticism that the system being used this year was unfair.
The government completed the U-turn just days after Prime Minister Boris Johnson and education secretary Gavin Williamson defended the “robust” system that was used to grade students in the absence of exams being sat during the coronavirus pandemic.
It follows a backlash from headteachers, parents and students - plus growing anger among backbench Tory MPs.
Nearly 40 per cent of A-level marks were downgraded this year by the system - referred to by many as an algorithm - devised by regulator Ofqual.
An avalanche of appeals was expected in the wake of the results.
Now, while students who were awarded a higher grade by the moderation process will be allowed to keep it, many pupils will see their grades increased in line with their teachers’ predictions.
Following crisis talks with the Prime Minister and senior officials on Monday, Mr Williamson apologised for the chaos.
He said: “This has been an extraordinarily difficult year for young people who were unable to take their exams.
“We worked with Ofqual to construct the fairest possible model, but it is clear that the process of allocating grades has resulted in more significant inconsistencies than can be resolved through an appeals process.
“We now believe it is better to offer young people and parents certainty by moving to teacher assessed grades for both A and AS level and GCSE results.
“I am sorry for the distress this has caused young people and their parents but hope this announcement will now provide the certainty and reassurance they deserve.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “The government has had months to sort out exams and has now been forced into a screeching U-turn after days of confusion.
“This is a victory for the thousands of young people who have powerfully made their voices heard this past week.”
Long Road Sixth Form principal Yolanda Botham had called the system an “unfair fiasco” last week, adding: “We don’t think the regulator’s formula has worked. We have seen a significant reduction in our centre assessed grades.”
And Hills Road Sixth Form principal Jo Trump also called the system “unfair” last week, and said: “We will be asking for explanations and challenging on our students' behalf, in the strongest terms, where we believe injustices have occurred.”
Larger sixth-forms, like Hills Road and Long Road, were adversely affected by the original grading system.
Ofqual put most weight on the teachers’ assessment if a school or college had fewer than 15 students taking an exam, but downgraded more of their predictions in classes above this size.
The move brings England into line with the system ultimately adopted in Scotland, where a similar U-turn was performed after a backlash.
Mr Williamson had previously claimed there would be “no U-turn, no change” and argued a shift like Scotland’s would lead to “rampant grade inflation”.
Prior to the change of plans, Anthony Browne, the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire, had told the Cambridge Independent: “The results do seem manifestly unfair - for example, Hills Road got its worst A-level results ever despite the fact that its students’ GCSE results were normal. Its proportion of A and A* grades are inexplicably three per cent below its three-year average. I have spent the weekend making strong representations to education ministers, and it seems clear that ‘large centres’ like these which have unusually large cohorts studying A levels are disadvantaged by the algorithm used by Ofqual.”
But he had also opposed following the Holyrood example, adding: “I absolutely do not believe that we should follow the Scottish option of just giving students the results predicted by their teachers, as some are suggesting.
“Teachers are under huge pressure from parents to be generous, and have predicted about 40 per cent of their pupils getting A or A*, about half more than normal.
“In usual years, over 70 per cent of pupils do not get the grades predicted by their teachers. I certainly believe in cutting slack for this year’s students, but awarding them 50 per cent more A and A* grades than normal would be extremely unfair to students in the years before and after them, whom they would often be competing with for university places and jobs.”
Today, following the government decision, he accepted that the switch was the best route forward - albeit one that would bring its own challenges.
He said: “I welcome the government’s announcement, following the significant change in circumstances over a weekend where Ofqual’s continued prevarications have caused anguish for students, parents and teachers.
“The withdrawal of guidance on appeals within hours of it being issued was unacceptable and caused genuine chaos. An effective system of appeal would have been able to deal with the understandable grievances that students and schools have communicated to me over the last few days. It is clear that such a system is not now possible, particularly given the looming deadline for university applications.
“In light of this, as I made the views of my constituents and local teachers known to government and ministers, I have pushed for robust action and very much welcome their new approach, listening and taking all the feedback on board.
“I completely understand and sympathise with the anger felt by many students, who have been unable to attend school for months, had their exams cancelled, and faced the heartbreak of seeing their futures thrown into doubt by a computer algorithm that didn’t enable them to show what they are capable of.
“Even though this is the best solution now, it will undoubtedly produce its own problems, particularly with university admissions. I remain ready to listen, understand and assist anyone who continues to face uncertainty or feels unfairly treated.”
Cambridge’s Labour MP Daniel Zeichner had called the system “outrageous” last week.
Today, he told the Cambridge Independent: “What a fiasco. I welcome the U-turn, which is a victory for the thousands of young people who have made their voices heard loudly and clearly over the past few days.
“But make no mistake this has been an appalling episode. The situation was foreseeable and avoidable. All the government had to do was trust teachers, who know their students best, from day one.
“This late in the day policy shift comes after heartbreak for students, some of whom have lost places at university and it will have long-lasting consequences.
“This shambles of a government cannot be trusted.”
The leader of the Labour group on Cambridgeshire County Council, Cllr Elisa Meschini, described the decision as “an incredible U-turn from the government after being beaten to the sensible course of action by the Scottish and then the Welsh government”.
It was, she suggested, “an embarrassing show of failing to take responsibility for the blunder by no government minister making an appearance and allowing the chair of Ofqual to make the announcement instead” and “cowardly behaviour by this government.”
She added: “Ofqual set the algorithm according to the policy direction set by the Department for Education and Number 10. Ofqual didn’t just make it up on the hoof.”
Following the change, Roger Taylor, chair of Ofqual, said: “There was no easy solution to the problem of awarding exam results when no exams have taken place.
“Ofqual was asked by the Secretary of State to develop a system for awarding calculated grades, which maintained standards and ensured that grades were awarded broadly in line with previous years. Our goal has always been to protect the trust that the public rightly has in educational qualifications.
“But we recognise that while the approach we adopted attempted to achieve these goals we also appreciate that it has also caused real anguish and damaged public confidence. Expecting schools to submit appeals where grades were incorrect placed a burden on teachers when they need to be preparing for the new term and has created uncertainty and anxiety for students. For all of that, we are extremely sorry.”
The devolved administrations in Wales and Northern Ireland have also announced they are moving to teacher-assessed grades.
Ofqual’s statement in full
Chairman Roger Taylor said: “We understand this has been a distressing time for students, who were awarded exam results last week for exams they never took. The pandemic has created circumstances no one could have ever imagined or wished for. We want to now take steps to remove as much stress and uncertainty for young people as possible - and to free up heads and teachers to work towards the important task of getting all schools open in two weeks.
“After reflection, we have decided that the best way to do this is to award grades on the basis of what teachers submitted. The switch to centre assessment grades will apply to both AS and A levels and to the GCSE results which students will receive later this week.
“There was no easy solution to the problem of awarding exam results when no exams have taken place. Ofqual was asked by the Secretary of State to develop a system for awarding calculated grades, which maintained standards and ensured that grades were awarded broadly in line with previous years. Our goal has always been to protect the trust that the public rightly has in educational qualifications.
“But we recognise that while the approach we adopted attempted to achieve these goals we also appreciate that it has also caused real anguish and damaged public confidence. Expecting schools to submit appeals where grades were incorrect placed a burden on teachers when they need to be preparing for the new term and has created uncertainty and anxiety for students. For all of that, we are extremely sorry.
“We have therefore decided that students be awarded their centre assessment for this summer - that is, the grade their school or college estimated was the grade they would most likely have achieved in their exam - or the moderated grade, whichever is higher.
“The path forward we now plan to implement will provide urgent clarity. We are already working with the Department for Education, universities and everyone else affected by this issue.”