education

'Cruelly cast aside': A-level victims say summer debacle must never happen again


The flawed advice to schools last May on how to grade students when exams were cancelled because of the pandemic has been withdrawn from the government’s website and the damage it did consigned to history. But out in the real world there is no such magic wand for thousands of students still seeking justice after their grades were wrongly reduced.

One is Harry-James Brioche, who lost a hard-won degree apprenticeship with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) that would have paid his university fees for four years, plus a salary to cover his living costs, and work placements and the chance of a job on graduation.

Another is Helen Prior*, whose teachers at her Oxfordshire school thought she would achieve AAB based on her end-of-term tests and mock exams, but who lost her place to study pharmacy when her grades were unaccountably reduced to BDD.

They are just two of 1,500 teenagers whose families have joined a Facebook group to campaign for justice for students whose schools closely followed the guidance of the exams regulator Ofqual, which then used a computer algorithm that wrongly graded about 40% of A-level candidates.

The affected students attended schools and colleges that followed the advice of bodies, including ASCL, the headteachers’ union, that to comply with Ofqual’s guidance, they needed to alter their teacher-assessed grades to bring them in line with what students had achieved over the previous three years. Ofqual feared that teacher-assessed grades alone would be too optimistic, and designed an algorithm that took a school’s historic results into account in order to avoid national grade inflation.

But while some schools lowered their teachers’ assessments – often against their better judgment – to bring them in line with previous years before submitting them as Cags (centre assessment grades) to Ofqual, other schools did not alter grades when they submitted their Cags, and instead left Ofqual to number-crunch. In the end this meant that some students suffered even more because their school had already lowered their grades before submitting them.

Wind forward to August 2020 and, when it emerged that Ofqual’s algorithm to standardise the grades had not worked, the government ordered that students be given the choice of accepting the grades they were awarded by Ofqual’s system or using their schools’ Cags instead.

Prior, who was downgraded from AAB to ABC when her school submitted its Cags, was horrified to find her grades further reduced by Ofqual’s algorithm to BDD. She believes its algorithm failed to pick up that the school had been rapidly improving under a new headteacher, attracting stronger students to its sixth form. When the government announced in August that students could choose their Cags instead, hers went up to ABC – still short of the ABB she needed to study pharmacy.

On Friday, launching a consultation, Williamson confirmed that teacher assessment will be the prime method of setting grades this year and proposed that results be published in early July, allowing more time for appeals. But students let down last year say a better system is needed where students themselves can appeal, not have to rely on their school.

Dennis Sherwood, an independent assessment consultant who has worked with Ofqual, says: “Ofqual kept insisting last year that its system had to be fair – the word was used 14 times in one of its statements – yet unfairness to individual students is still not being acknowledged or resolved. Trusting teachers is a good thing, but last year has shown that advice given to them can be unclear and subject to change, so it’s very important that this year’s candidates have a fair and timely appeals system.”

Brioche’s school, St Ambrose College in Altrincham, Cheshire, appealed to the exam board OCR for his computer science grade to be increased from the A submitted by the school to the A* they had originally assessed, sending a copy of the form filled in by his teacher, an OCR examiner in the subject, saying he would get an A*.

It argued that it had entered only five candidates for the subject, and Ofqual admitted in August that its standardisation historical method had broken down and did not work at all with cohorts of five or fewer. But although Brioche’s grade was therefore based on faulty data, the appeal to OCR failed. “The centre’s approach to determining Cags is consistent with Ofqual’s guidance,” it ruled – referring to the same guidance that has since been withdrawn by the Department for Education.

Brioche’s school decided against appealing the B grade it had submitted for his physics A-level because the number of students sitting the subject was larger, making it harder to prove that the historic data was misleading.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL)
Geoff Barton, of the ASCL, called for 2020 candidates to be able to use their teacher-assessed grades if higher than their Cags, but Gavin Williamson refused. Photograph: Jason Senior/ASCL/PA

“I’m very grateful for the school’s support,” says Brioche.

OCR said it was following the advice of the Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents examining bodies, which had advised that the fact a school had taken account previous years’ grades when calculating its Cags was not grounds for appeal.

St Ambrose’s headteacher, Dermot Rainey, said he did not think it appropriate to comment.

Geoff Barton, the ASCL’s general secretary, has called for candidates to be able to use their teacher assessed grades if higher than their Cags. Williamson, however, has refused, telling the Commons education select committee last September that he feared “every school would decide that it had been too strict on their centre assessment grades and that you would have every school submitting again”.

Barton says many schools and colleges were placed in a very difficult position last year. “They worked extremely hard to apply Ofqual’s methodology, only to find that the algorithm then proved a disaster and had to be abandoned. They then faced irate parents who felt their children’s grades had been pulled down unfairly and Ofqual turned down our requests to open up an avenue of appeal. We also requested that the government commission an independent review of exactly what went wrong with last year’s system, but that didn’t happen either.

“We will look closely at details of how the teacher assessment system announced by the education secretary will operate this year, but it is obviously imperative in the light of last year’s disaster that the guidance to schools and colleges, and the system for moderation and appeals, is clear, logical, and demonstrably fair.”

All this will come too late for Brioche, who was accepted on the same computer science degree – but without the PwC apprenticeship for which he had been selected from more than 900 applicants. A spokeswoman for PwC said more students than expected had met its entry requirements. “Across the four tech degree programmes we have there were 110 places available. Due to the unusual circumstances and changes in grades, that meant more students were eligible compared to a normal year, so we extended this to accept 132. Unfortunately, some candidates didn’t achieve grades in either scenario,” she said.

Brioche says he lost his place through no fault of his own. “I feel cheated. I worked so hard to make sure all my marks were A or A* in all my subjects throughout the year and then the grades were taken away and all the safety nets have failed me. It’s too late to change what happened to me and many other students, and it’s hard for me to speak publicly about it, but I just don’t want to see more students suffer from the same mistakes this year,” he says.

His mother, Catherine Brioche, says: “My son and others like him worked hard and have done everything asked of them, and now they have lost trust in the system that let them down so badly. They have been cruelly cast aside. It must not happen again this year.”

*The student’s name has been changed at her request



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