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2020 A-level results not reliable, says Children’s Commissioner

14 August 2020


Students at Norwich School discuss their results on Thursday

Students at Norwich School discuss their results on Thursday

NO MATTER how many appeals and retakes occur over the highly disputed 2020 A-level results, the “inequalities already existing in the education system will be deepened”, the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has warned.

She was responding to protests from schools, teachers, and students over the fairness of A-level results, which were released on Thursday.

Exams were cancelled in March owing to the coronavirus lockdown (News, 27 March). The exam regulator for England, Ofqual, designed a new grades system for this year based on schools’ previous results. There have been numerous reports that, as a result, disadvantaged schools were subject to the biggest downgrades compared to private or independent schools, or schools in more affluent areas.

Even though the highest number of A* and A grades were recorded overall across the UK, in England more than one third (36 per cent) of entries had a lower grade than teachers had predicted; three per cent of students’ results were lowered by two grades. Many students reported losing out on university places as a consequence.

One teacher, Kate Clanchy, described how a “top English student” who achieved an A at AS level “had her A Level grade reduced from A* to C, apparently just because she goes to a disadvantaged school”. Her comments were retweeted by the Bishop of Sherborne, the Rt Revd Karen Gorham.

Ms Longfield said on Thursday: “In the absence of actual exam data, no system of prediction can be free of limitations or controversy. However, I am especially concerned by the fact that grades have increased more in private schools than in other schools.

There are also reports of students receiving grades which are significantly different from what they were expecting. The addition of an appeal based on mock results carries its own very serious shortcomings. The appeals system will need to address all of these problems.”

She also expressed concern that more affluent schools would be more likely, able, and willing to appeal. It was unacceptable for schools to try to dissuade pupils from retakes because of concerns about workload and resources, she said.

Finally, she said, “no matter how many tweaks and adjustments are introduced, how many appeals and retakes, the results from 2020, for ‘A’ level and GCSE, will not be reliable for all students. Inequalities already existing in the education system will be deepened. That puts the onus firmly on sixth forms, colleges, universities, and employers to be mindful of the effects of this system and make appropriate allowances for each applicant.”

She concluded: “Once the immediate crisis is over, the Government should take a long, hard look at the nation’s exam system and whether it does right by children.”

On Thursday, the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, was criticised for stating that “the danger is pupils will be over-promoted to jobs beyond their competence” if predicted grades from teachers and mock exams had been used rather than the current system. The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, described the results as a “complete fiasco”.

Several bishops expressed their sympathy with students. The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, said: “Praying for all those receiving exam results today. May you know that they will not define you and that you are love unconditionally by God.”

The Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman, said: “Always a tough time but this year it is truly so difficult. Our young people in the North East may fare particularly badly. May they know they are amazing whatever the results show.”

The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, said: “Praying for all receiving exam results in times unforeseen. In disappointment or joy, know that grades do not define you. You are unique & precious, intricately created by God who knows & loves you. Go on becoming as you walk into the future 1 step at a time.”

The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, also prayed “for those working to see a fair and just process, today and over the next weeks”. On Monday, it was announced that GCSE results in Northern Ireland would be based solely on grades provided by teachers. Bishop Bayes said: “I honour the resilience of teachers in the face of consistent mistrust, indeed contempt. The assumption in England seems to be that all teachers will have distorted truth so as to exaggerate their students’ abilities. This mess offers an opportunity to reset the compass of trust.”

The Prime Minister said last week that the Government had a “moral duty” to ensure children returned to school in September. The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, said on Monday: “Is sorting out #AlevelResults mess as much of a ‘moral duty’ as getting children back to school next month? Algorithm not responsible people who choose/use it are.”

Also on Monday, the Principal of All Saints’ C of E Academy in Cheltenham, Dermot McNiffe, while praising the results of his students, 70 per cent of whom achieved A*-C grades, said: “However, it is important to note that although our Academy A-Level outcomes have significantly improved this year, there are a number of our students who have been treated unfairly by the Government’s arbitrary and random method of standardising schools’ teacher assessed outcomes.

“We have seen some of our students’ results moderated down by as much as two grades. This should not be happening, and it flies in the face of the Government’s stated intention of maintaining an exam system of integrity. It is fortuitous that, in most cases, the students affected by this achieved their teacher assessed grade in their mock examinations, which will hopefully rectify the situation and prove the validity of our teachers’ assessment.”

Worcester College, Oxford, announced on Friday that it would be offering places to all of its UK offer holders, regardless of their grades. A statement explained: “At Worcester we made offers in 2020 to our most diverse cohort ever, and in response to the uncertainties surrounding this year’s assessment, we have confirmed the places of all our UK offer-holders, irrespective of their A-level results.” Several bishops congratulated the college on its decision.

A-level entries for Religious Studies, although 41 per cent higher than in 2003, have fallen of late, but at a slower rate than other humanities subjects, the Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC) reported.

In 2020, 15,692 RS A-level entries were recorded in England and Wales, compared with 17,490 in last year — a decline of 11.5 per cent. Geography and history declined by 16 and 15 per cent respectively.

The overall number of A-Level entries in England and Wales fell by 2.6 per cent — from 768,217 in 2019 to 748,905 in 2020. Data from the Office for National Statistics suggests that this is due in part to a smaller cohort of 18-year-olds (down by about 20,000 from last year).

The 41-per-cent increase can be compared with law (down by five per cent), geography (down by 15 per cent), and history (up by seven per cent). Sociology, economics, and political studies have shown the biggest increases (60, 80, and 90 per cent, respectively).

The chair of the REC, Professor Trevor Cooling, said: “The figures are encouraging, despite the context of a declining cohort of 18-year-olds. . . The Government should recognise the importance of RS in preparing pupils for life in multicultural Britain and a globalised workplace.”

The chair of the National Association of Teachers of RE, Ben Wood, said: “Though this year has seen grades awarded in an unprecedented way, I hope that all students will remember to take away the value of what they have learned over the last few years.”

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