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'A victory for young people': UK government forced into u-turn over A-level grades

Boris Johnson, who is on holiday in Scotland, held crisis talks with the minister and senior officials this morning.

Image: PA Images

Updated Aug 17th 2020, 8:12 PM

A MAJOR U-TURN by the UK government will see tens of thousands of A-level students in England receive increased grades, with Education Secretary Gavin Williamson apologising for the distress caused by the debacle.

Following criticism from students and headteachers and complaints from dozens of Tory MPs, grades will now be based on teachers’ assessments rather than a controversial algorithm devised by regulator Ofqual.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Williamson had previously defended the “robust” system, which saw almost 40% of grades reduced from teachers’ predictions.

The change will also apply to GCSE results in England, which are due to be released on Thursday.

Williamson apologised for the handling of the process, which followed the cancellation of exams due to coronavirus.

Ofqual’s chairman Roger Taylor admitted the regulator had gone down the “wrong road”.

The algorithm was meant to moderate the process of awarding grades, preventing teachers awarding what the exams watchdog described as “implausibly high” marks to pupils.

But it came under fire over its perceived unfairness and the way it particularly appeared to penalise bright children from disadvantaged schools.

Williamson accepted it had produced more “significant inconsistencies” than could be rectified through an appeals process.

Johnson, who is on holiday in Scotland, held crisis talks with Williamson and senior officials this morning to discuss the policy shift.

Students who were awarded a higher grade by the moderation process will be allowed to keep it, but for many pupils the shift to teachers’ predictions will see their grades improve.

Williamson 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.

He claimed the scale of the problem had only become clear over the weekend.

“As we looked in greater detail over Saturday and Sunday, it became evident that further action needed to be taken,” he said.

Williamson did not say whether he retained confidence in Ofqual, but acknowledged the body had worked “incredibly hard” to ensure fairness.

featureimage Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson in his office at the Department of Education Source: Stefan Rousseau via PA Images

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.”

Ofqual apologised for the “uncertainty and anxiety” suffered by pupils.

Taylor said: “What changed was seeing the experience of young people receiving grades and being distressed at the need to then go and appeal grades where they felt they were wrong.

“This was causing anxiety for young people, it was putting an administrative burden on teachers at a time when they needed to be preparing for a new school term.

“Seeing this we realised we had taken the wrong road here and we needed to change course.”

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland announced this morning that GCSE students would be given their teacher-assessed grade without standardisation, but initially said A-level results would remain the same.

It’s now been confirmed by Stormont Education Minister Peter Weir that A-level and AS-level candidates in Northern Ireland will be awarded grades predicted by their teachers when they are higher. 

Weir said he expected grades to inflate by more than 10% following the abandonment of centralised standardisation.

He said: “Whilst standardisation is normally an important feature of awarding qualifications, these are truly unique circumstances and this approach is now being adopted across the UK. This is why I have taken this decision today.”

Earlier this afternoon, Wales also announced they were moving to teacher-assessed grades.

The Scottish government was forced into a U-turn last week after a backlash about the moderation system used there, giving advance notice of the chaos elsewhere in the UK, but UK government ministers had previously insisted they would not follow the example set in Holyrood.

Williamson had claimed there would be “no U-turn, no change” and a shift like Scotland would lead to “rampant grade inflation”.

Last week Johnson said the system was “robust” and “dependable”.

Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee and a Tory MP, said there would be lessons to be learned but “in the end, this is the right decision from Ofqual”.

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The move could cause further uncertainty for A-level students hoping to go to university, as an increase in the number of people achieving the required entry grades could cause trouble in the admissions process.

For others the change may already be too late if they have missed out on courses as a result of the lower grades awarded last week.

The Department for Education said a cap on the number of places that universities can offer was being lifted.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “The big question remains as to why this decision has taken so long to come, as it may already be too late for some A-level students who have already missed out on their first choice of university and course.”

Quick reminder of the process

Instead of students sitting exams to assess their work, teachers were to give a grade based on students’ work to date. This would be then ‘standardised’ against past GCSE and A-level results, in order to bring down what was predicted to be ‘inflated grades’ from teachers.

In Ireland, students had the option of sitting a written exam in the autumn or winter as a way of appealing this decision – the UK only announced alternative appeals options last week, after the backlash in Scotland to Calculated Grades awarded there.

For the Junior Cert, it was eventually decided in late April that students would instead receive certificates of completion from the State, and written report from school where it will be up to each individual school how they assess their JC students.

The Junior Cert equivalent in the UK, the GCSEs, involved students being graded by their teachers and that grade standardised by an education authority – the same process as the A-levels (the equivalent to the Leaving Cert).

- with reporting from the Press Association, Rónán Duffy and Hayley Halpin

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