After almost 40% of A-Level results in England were downgraded by Ofqual compared to the predicted grades issued by teachers, Ministers in England, Northern Ireland, and Wales all decided on Monday 17 July—four days after A-level results were issued—to make a ‘U-Turn’ and assign students the grades predicted by their teachers.
A poll conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies the day before A-Level results day found that the majority (52%) of the British public agreed that grades this year should be calculated solely on the judgement of teachers, without moderation by Ofqual or another third-party organisation. Only 15% disagreed that grades should be calculated solely on the judgement of teachers.
Support for grades being awarded on the judgement of teachers alone was even higher among parents of school-aged children (63%) than among the general population, showing the trust that parents in the UK have on the ability of teachers to fairly assess the performance of their children. Alternatively, it could be suggested that parents believe their children will obtain a better grade if they are assigned their aspirational predicted grade, and therefore they will be more likely to favour this approach.
When presented with a range of potential options for how to calculate grades this year, only 15% of the public supported the UK Government’s initial decision to moderate a student’s predicted grades on the basis of their school’s performance in recent years. Over a third (37%) believed students should be awarded the grades their teachers predicted they would achieve, while a fifth (19%) say students should wait and sit the exams when it is safe to do so.
A fairly similar proportion of those who have school-aged children preferred students being awarded the grades their teachers predicted they would achieve (31%) as compared to having students sit the exams when it is safe to do so (29%). Unlike other school systems, British qualifications are awarded based on performance in final exams, which are the culmination of multiple years of work. However, with some university places resting on these results, waiting to sit the exams would mean students would have to delay their enrolment. Ultimately, had the Government decided to postpone rather than cancel examinations, universities would have lost out on a cohort of students. Nevertheless, the Government’s decision to backtrack on its initial decision has also caused issues in the higher education sector, with institutions now dealing with a surge of inquiries from students rejected due to their original results last week, prompting fears over capacity at a time when social distancing requirements make it even more difficult than ever to increase intake sizes.
The change of course across the devolved nations of the UK now means the credibility of the qualifications awarded this year rests on the accuracy of predicted grades. Slightly less than half of respondents (49%) think that predicted grades provided by teachers are generally accurate, although only 16% think they are not generally accurate.
Although a large proportion of the public trusts predicted grades, the Government’s own figures show that only 16% of predicted grades have been accurate in the past, and worryingly, they are even less accurate for disadvantaged pupils. However, teachers tend to over-predict, rather than downgrade students in the way the moderation process had done, which may explain why awarding students their predicted grades is a popular option. Moreover, Ofqual’s grade moderation algorithm determined grades on the past performance of schools and was consequently accused of widening the gap in educational attainment between social classes by giving an advantage to students whose schools have previously performed well. Private schools saw the highest year-on-year increase in students achieving A/A* grades of any type of school, with 48.6% of students achieving the top grades compared to 21.8% of students in state comprehensive.
A-Level and GCSE exam results are essential to secure a place at university, an apprenticeship, or a job. In an increasingly competitive jobs market, over a third (37%) think it would be unfair to compare results obtained by job applicants this year with those grades obtained by job applicants in previous years, with less than a fifth (18%) thinking it would be a fair comparison.
When asked why this would be unfair, the majority (58%) of this sub-group of respondents said it was because students in previous years had the opportunity to improve before they sat their exams, rather than being assessed while they were still learning the material.
It is commonly expected that students will improve significantly in the run-up to their exams, when students are often granted ‘study leave’ and can focus on revising and honing their examination technique rather than learning new material. Meanwhile, homework assignments, in-class tests, and mock exams occur while the student is actively still learning the material and may be experiencing difficulties that they would be expected to overcome by exam period.
Overall, prior to the UK Government’s ‘U-Turn’ the public expressed approval for awarding students the predicted grades provided by their teachers. The public generally believe grades provided by teachers to be the most accurate alternative. Ofqual’s algorithm downgraded large numbers of grades, jeopardising university places and jobs, whereas grades provided by teachers tend to be over-predictions, leading to more positive (even if not always deserved) outcomes for many students.