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The Exam Debacle is Not Atypical of The UK Government, But It’s Undoubtedly a Low Moment

BY: Rhys Wallis

The UK Government was resolute that it would not be forced into any screeching U-Turns over Exam Results. It declared that it had a brilliant and foolproof system. It declared that its system was fair and meritocratic. But that was all before the events of just over a week ago when all of those pledges and commitments came crashing down in the hot mess that was the 13th-18th of August.

Ever since the UK Government made the decision that exams were cancelled, way back in the tail end of March this year, they knew that something would have to replace the exams for awarding grades. The government also knew that there were just under 5 months until the scheduled results day (13th August in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland) – not a bad deadline, which gave them plenty of time to sort out what would be done.  They also could have used the exceptional circumstances of a global pandemic to push back the deadline. What they didn’t know was how to do it, and here lies the embryo of the problem.

All four nations of the UK went with roughly the same approach. Because education policy is a devolved issue, they may have individual plans on how to handle the grades dilemma. Despite all plans being slightly different, they basically followed the same pathway.

The grades would be assigned in two stages; first, teachers would be able to submit a prediction or assessment on what they thought a student would be able to achieve in the actual exam, along with evidence to back up that claim to an exam board, and then secondly, the overall exam watchdog in the UK (Ofqual for the majority of the country) would use an algorithm or other factors to make the grades as realistic as possible.

The majority of this algorithm was to be based off school prior performance, and other school-based, rather than individual-based data, meaning that if a school consistently performed at around a grade C-level, yet in this abnormal year was predicted to achieve straight A* Grades, then the moderation system would flag this up and lower those predictions.

On the face of it, this doesn’t sound like an outlandish system. For a year of students who will already have a major footnote coming along with their grades, it felt like a helpful mitigating factor to give weight and fairness to these results rather than creating a year of outliers. That all changed when the first set of results came out.

Scotland released results for their exams (the National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher Exams) on August 4th, 11 days before the rest of the UK released A-Level Results. From the outset, there was consternation. Pass rates were up – which was expected – but they were up by not too much (around 3% more students got a pass across the 3 types of exams) but the real clamor was in how the grades had been moderated by Scotland’s equivalent of Ofqual, the SQA.

Again, across all formats, there was a fairly uniform pattern, but this time, it was that around 8% of all students in every exam category were moderated down from their teacher predictions by the Scottish Qualification Authority, with nearly a quarter of all students in total moderated down. Not outlandish at first glance, but on further examination, it was clearer to see that something was wrong.

The Scottish Green Party voiced concerns about the state of the system, which they thought could disadvantage students from deprived backgrounds in favor of those from more privileged backgrounds – and they were right. The Higher Exam Pass Rate for pupils from the most deprived backgrounds was reduced by 15.2%, but for the wealthiest pupils, that figure was only 6.9%. A clear discrepancy.

This is the issue with an algorithm that bases a lot of its data on past attainment and the average grades from those schools. The crop of students currently in the system was actually going to achieve better grades than their predecessors and the system wouldn’t take that into account; however, if the private schools over-predicted their grades, it would fit in with the algorithm’s assessment of past attainment, and they would be more likely to keep those grades.

To the credit of the Scottish Government, the decision was rectified well within the week.  The Education Secretary and the Scottish First Minister both came out with public apologies before announcing that all grades would be based on the center assessment grades (also referred to in the popular media and this article as teacher predictions).

Students got the grades their teachers had assigned, and the system – in Scotland – was resolved. Most parties were happy, and the school year – which begins earlier in Scotland than the rest of the UK – could begin. This change also prompted a small alteration from the UK Government, as they agreed to guarantee that no student would get a lower grade than they achieved in their mock exams – although the fact that these exams are not standardized was a cause for concern in some quarters.

Watching this unfold with no small amount of unease was the Northern Irish, Welsh and English students, all of whom knew that the algorithm was still in place for them. The system was, however, defended by the UK Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, and also Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Although this in theory should have been a cause for allaying fears, it didn’t, given the recent track record of this government. As it turned out, we were right to be skeptical.

On the morning of the 13th of August, thousands of students across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland received emails or opened envelopes to find out their A-Level grades. It went much the same way as the Scottish Grades were received. Disbelief in some quarters, mixed with anger, frustration, and for some, extreme disappointment. 

Gavin Williamson had been adamant that he would not ‘do a Scotland’ in relation to grades, for fear of a backbench rebellion in the House of Commons, and he made the media circuit in the afternoon affirming that students would not be given their teacher predictions. But things were already spiralling out of his control.

Some students who had been predicted A grades and moderated to Bs were, understandably, unhappy, and wanted to know how to appeal for grades. This was a system that had been thought of prior to the 13th, and an appeals system was in place, costing around £100. Students could submit an appeal to Ofqual to receive their mock grades, or sit an Autumn exam as part of a resit to achieve their grade.

Unfortunately, neither of those solutions would solve the issue of students who felt aggrieved by the algorithm, especially as data set after data set showed that Independent and Private schools had seen nearly double the percentage increase in pass grades than comprehensive and state school achieved.

Wales was the first to crack, announcing that appeals would be free and that students could appeal for the highest grades out of either their teacher assessed grade, their most recent mock result, or their AS Grade if they were taking A-Levels.

Soon after, Northern Ireland and followed suit with a very similar format before both countries scrapped the appeal process altogether and awarded students the highest grades achieved therein automatically. That left England, the last bastion of a broken algorithm.

It took until 4 pm on the 17th of August in a not-trailed press announcement on BBC 1 for the English results to change, a move that had been inevitable since Scotland made its change, but was still resisted up until the moment it happened in some branches of government. The Government did not even make the official announcement, leaving it to a beleaguered looking head of Ofqual to make the statement and an apology.

Students in England would be given the highest grade out of the following: their center assessed grade/ teacher prediction, mock grade, or moderated grade, and they would be given to them automatically. “Great!” cried many students, credit to the government for finally doing it, but for some, this was far too late.

After the 13th August, students had possibly been denied university placements based on their lower moderated grades, places which had then been offered to students holding what is known as insurance or reserve offers. Those places didn’t exist by the 17th of August.

The system used to allocate spare places, called clearing in the UK, had also closed by the 17th, so any new grades which may have got students into their first choice Universities would have been irrelevant. Also, there is a cap on Uni places in the UK, and those places were full. That was until the government announced clearing would reopen, and that the cap would be lifted on all subjects to try and frantically scrabble their way around into a semblance of order.

Perhaps this will solve the problem, but it probably won’t. Oversubscribed courses this year could just push the problem onto next year, hitting an already embattled year group. Higher grades being awarded off teacher predictions could simply put another massive footnote in the archive of this year’s results – not a resounding success for the government.

For a system that took 5 months to put together, to see it all come tumbling to the ground in a little under 5 days leaves a bit of a sour taste in the mouth. The government, albeit placed in a very difficult situation, and not always helped by teacher grades (which have been responsible for a few of the disappointments relating to grades achieved), managed to almost concurrently hold opposite positions. It meanwhile held out in support of a failing system and managed to force itself into a tire-screeching U-Turn of which Michael Schumacher would be proud.

This hasn’t sent much faith in the government’s direction. Although that isn’t a break from recent events, it is always disheartening to see education and the education system frustrated with the government: after all, this is the future and education of the United Kingdom. Just some food for thought.

*All arguments made and viewpoints expressed within Youth In Politics and its nominal entities do not necessarily reflect the views of the writers or the organization as a whole.


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