CIE0158

Written evidence submitted by Michael Bell

I am writing to present evidence with reference to one issue from the terms of reference, namely

1. Introduction

I am the parent of a child who would have been taking their A levels this summer, and am presenting this evidence on behalf of my child and others who I know through research are in a similar situation and who, I believe, will not be treated fairly in respect of their exam grading. In overview, the students with particular characteristics and circumstances will have their grades unfairly adjusted downwards and their only right of recourse will be to take the exams in the autumn. This could have a significant impact on both their future prospects and their mental health.

2. Evidence

a. Overarching principles proposed

When the summer exam series was originally cancelled on 20 March 2020, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said

Cancelling exams is something no Education Secretary would ever want to do, however these are extraordinary times and this measure is a vital but unprecedented step in the country’s efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus.

My priority now is to ensure no young person faces a barrier when it comes to moving onto the next stage of their lives – whether that’s further or higher education, an apprenticeship or a job.

I have asked exam boards to work closely with the teachers who know their pupils best to ensure their hard work and dedication is rewarded and fairly recognised.

The government said “The Government’s priority is now to ensure affected students can move on as planned to the next stage of their lives, including going into employment, starting university, college or sixth form courses, or an apprenticeship in the autumn.”. They also said in terms of allowing individuals to appeal “…If they do not believe the correct process has been followed in their case they will be able to appeal on that basis.”. (My emphasis).

 

b. Ofqual’s planned process to award grades

Initially we were told that Ofqual and exam boards would work with teachers to provide grades to students whose exams have been cancelled this summer. The general principle would be that teachers, who know their students the best, submit their judgement about the grade that they believe the student would have received if exams had gone ahead. To produce this, teachers would take into account a range of evidence and data including performance on mock exams and non-exam assessment. Further details on the operation of this process would be published by Ofqual in a consultation paper.

When the Ofqual consultation paper was published, the proposed plans for the production and awarding of grades included reference to a “statistical standardisation process/modelwhich would be applied to the grades submitted by the students’ teachers. The consultation paper asked for responses to a number of questions, including

When the outcome of the consultation was published on 22 May 2020, Ofqual took the decision in respect of these items to

c. What these decisions mean in practice

These decisions will negatively impact a particular group of students, namely those who are outliers, talented students who would have excelled at this year’s exams but who attend a school or college that has only an average or poor historic exam performance. In effect, these talented students will have their submitted grades adjusted downwards simply because they are unlucky enough to go to a school where the predecessor students did not perform well.

To demonstrate this, let me take my daughter as an example. She should have taken three A levels this summer, English Literature, Religious Education (RE) and Psychology. Her predicted grades are A*/A/A respectively and she has an offer from Sussex University to study English Literature BA Hons which requires her to achieve grades of A/A/B respectively. At GCSE, she achieved grade 9s in English Literature, English Language and RE, so there is objective evidence she is at the top of her cohort across the country (grade 9s being awarded to approximately the top 4 to 5% of the cohort).

The school she attends however have a mediocre history of exam performance in these subjects, as set out below.

 

English Literature

 

 

 

Grade / Year

2019

2018

2017

A*

0

0

0

A

0

0

0

B

0

0

1

C

1

2

3

D

7

5

2

E

2

1

0

U

0

0

0

 

RE

 

 

 

Grade

2019

2018

2017

A*

0

0

0

A

0

0

0

B

3

0

1

C

4

4

1

D

1

3

4

E

0

0

2

U

0

0

0

 

Psychology

 

 

Grade

2019

2018

2017

A*

0

0

0

A

0

0

0

B

1

0

1

C

4

6

2

D

7

8

6

E

7

2

5

U

3

0

2

 

From this one can see that the previous students at the school have in the past three years never achieved above a B grade, and the average is below that, sitting more around the C to D grades.

Why is this relevant? Let us assume that my daughter’s school submit grades to the exam board matching her predicted grades i.e. A*/A/A. What will then happen to these grades when they go through the statistical standardisation process? Quite simply, her grades will end up being adjusted downwards. The process will look at my daughter’s grades, compare them to the previous performance of the school, find that the submitted grades are significantly above the previous distribution of historic grades, and then make the assumption that the submitted grades must in due to the school inflating her marks rather than that she could have genuinely achieved those marks. The model will therefore adjust her grades downwards.

Although it is difficult to know the scale of the downward adjustment, looking at the school’s historic performance, her final grades could end up being C/B/C instead of A*/A/A. All this because previous students at her school did not excel. She will effectively be penalised because of the school she attended. This is manifestly unfair. 

Let us continue with this example. My daughter opens her results on 13 August and finds she has been awarded C/B/C. The sense of injustice will be huge. More importantly, she may not be now able to attend university as she has not achieved the grades needed. We have been told that universities will be “flexible” this year but I have already heard of examples of universities stating plainly that if the student does not achieve their required grades they will not be able to take up their place.

And there will be no right of appeal against the adjustment of these grades. Neither my child, nor her school, will be able to appeal on the grounds that she would have indeed achieved her submitted grades. This is even though there is clearly objective evidence she could have achieved them – her GCSE grade 9s make that completely clear.

Instead, the only option Ofqual can offer is for her to take her examinations in the autumn. But this will be too late then for her to attend university this year. And it ignores the practicalities of studying for these exams – how will she access her tutor support and teaching? Does she have to stay at school for a further year?

Finally, my daughter is a typical high achiever, perfectionist in nature and with some mental health issues that are tied up with that particular mindset. Knowing her, I know that if she does receive adjusted grades that do not match her expectations of her own performance, she will undoubtedly be adversely affected mentally. Ofqual and the government do not seem to have considered the massive impact their plans will have on students’ mental health. I only hope that these students do not end up harming themselves in any way as a result of this.

3. Conclusion

Returning to the Education Secretary’s initial promises, has he in fact delivered on them looking at the evidence above?

“No young person should face a barrier to moving to the next stage of their life” and the priority “to ensure affected students can move on as planned to the next stage of their lives, includingstarting university…in the autumn”  – through no fault of her own, my daughter does now face a barrier and there is a distinct possibility that she will not be able to attend university as she had planned.

Will her hard work and dedication be rewarded and fairly recognised? It would not seem so. Ofqual even recognise that this situation will exist, but their only answer is the autumn exam series, hardly a practical or fair solution. How can downgrading a talented student’s grades simply because of the school they attend be a reward or fair recognition of their hard work?

Will she be able to appeal? No, it turns out she will not be able to appeal. She will have no right of recourse to challenge what is clearly a completely unfair process.

If the government really do want to work with teachers who after all “know their pupils best”, why aren’t they trusting those teachers’ judgements and seeking to overrule them with the implicit statement that they believe those teachers will not be professional enough to award the correct grade.

In closing, I can only hope that the Select Committee recognise the huge injustice noted above and can engineer some way of making changes to the current plan so that it treats all students fairly.

 

May 2020