A-Level students across the country are today receiving their grades, without having taken any final exams. Some will be celebrating, as they get the grades needed to take the next step in their education or begin their career.
Sadly, many other students will be disappointed. While this is always the case on results day, the Covid-19 crisis has meant that these young people were denied the opportunity to show what they can do in an exam setting. At a time of deep national anxiety, their futures may now seem even more uncertain.
Many concerns have already been expressed about how grades have been calculated this year. Students will feel that they are being judged by their school’s past performance, not by their own ability and effort. Those who were on track to buck the trend of past pupils’ performance may not have received the grades they deserve. Schools with a ‘better than normal’ cohort, or which have improved their teaching, will feel hard done by. At the same time, bias could be present in the schools’ own assessments of their students’ grades and rankings.
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 .
I would like to see three things:
Firstly, I am concerned that more affluent schools with more resources are more likely to appeal. This would not be fair and could worsen existing inequalities in the education system. Any school must be able – and willing – to appeal if a student is unhappy. The government should make this process as easy as possible, and ensure that disadvantaged schools and students are not left out.
Secondly, schools must support their pupils to take resit exams in the autumn, if it is in the pupil’s best interests. I have already heard of schools trying to dissuade pupils from retakes, due to concerns about workload and resources. This is unacceptable. Anyone who wants to take a resit must be helped to do so, and if schools need more resources then these must be provided. It still won’t be fair – students at some schools, especially private schools, have continued to receive education during lockdown. Millions of others haven’t.
Which brings me to the third, most important, point. 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. Even in normal times exam grades do not tell the full story of every teen’s ability, talent, motivation; what strengths they have and which challenges they have overcome. That is even truer this year. So it is more important than ever to be flexible when assessing someone’s application for university, sixth form, apprenticeships or jobs, looking beyond the narrow prism of this year’s grades.
Any statistical model, no matter how sophisticated, makes it impossible for each student to be treated and assessed as an individual. The rest of the system must now go the extra mile to do what statistical models cannot.
In England, a child’s attainment and future prospects are determined almost entirely by exams taken at just two points in their education. This is an inherently fragile system that is easily thrown into turmoil. It has also created considerable anxiety for children and young people ever since their exams were cancelled. 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.