Opinion: Making the grades

If there was any doubt that coronavirus is an all-consuming crisis, the fact that the exam system has now been pulled into it proves this to be the case. Richard Dawson looks at how Ofqual’s controversial algorithm reinforced inequalities and asks what’s next for the COVID generation?

The coronavirus pandemic started as a public health crisis and then became an economic crisis. Now, it is an education crisis.

There is much debate around whether or not this was inevitable, or whether poor management by Government ministers is to blame. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

It was always going to be difficult to grade students fairly when the lockdown took them out of the classroom at such a critical time.

The big call on the cancellation of exams, taken at the same time as the decision to close schools, also looks to have laid the groundwork for the current fiasco.

In the absence of exams, the UK needed a new system to award student grades.

The simplest solution, and the one that has now been adopted after a week of chaos, was to revert to teacher-assessed grades.

This was initially avoided because of fears it would lead to grade inflation, giving this year’s students an advantage over previous cohorts.

The alternative, which Education Secretary Gavin Williamson expended all of his political capital getting behind, was to use an algorithm or standardisation model designed by the official exam regulator, Ofqual.

Ofqual’s algorithm used teacher-assessed grades in combination with a ranking system whereby teachers ranked students from highest to lowest based on who would be most likely to achieve their estimated grades.

It also controversially took into account individual school’s performances over the previous three years.

When A-level results were published last Thursday (August 13), a staggering 39 per cent of grades were marked down, with working-class students and those living in areas of high social deprivation worst affected.

By taking into account historical performance, the algorithm penalised bright students attending underperforming schools and also failed to recognise schools that had made big improvements in the last year.

Conversely, it also benefitted students of private schools, which had typically performed better in previous years.

Schools with smaller classroom sizes also had an advantage over those with larger cohorts because teacher estimates were given more weight than the ranking system in this instance.

It became clear that the algorithm was reinforcing inequalities the education system is supposed to resolve. Designed in the interest of fairness, Ofqual’s standardisation model was anything but.

Students and parents across the UK made their anger felt in a wave of protests over the weekend, forcing the Government into a spectacular U-turn on Tuesday (August 17).

A-level results in the UK will now be based on teacher-assessed grades rather than the Ofqual algorithm. The same system will be used for GCSE results, due to be released tomorrow (August 19).

This means that the 39 per cent of students who were downgraded will now receive their predicted grades.

Although the change is welcome, the timing of it has created as many problems as it solves.

Universities that had already made unconditional offers to students and started to fill up spare capacity through the clearing system suddenly have many more young people who are now eligible to attend their institutions.

This creates myriad logistical challenges as many university courses, particularly those that are typically over-subscribed like medicine and dentistry, have limits on capacity, teaching and resources.

That’s before you even take into account the need for social distancing on campuses due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Government has lifted the cap on admissions, which fines universities for going over a set number of places, but there are still practical problems that will need to be overcome.

One thing that hasn’t been taken into account in the exam grades furore is the incredibly challenging circumstances that students now find themselves in.

Missing out on months of face-to-face tuition with the possibility of having to start a university degree over Microsoft Teams is not going to be easy.

That’s to say nothing for the school leavers who are preparing to enter a labour market that is more competitive than it has been for many decades.

Chris Toon, deputy principal at Gateshead College, says: “What matters is that the region’s hardworking young people are awarded the results they deserve; that they’ve worked incredibly hard for and that defines their future job prospects.

“With the Government confirming that A-level results will be based on teacher assessments, this means that all our A-level students should now be able to secure a university place.

“Ministers have made the right decision and despite the resilience of young people and their parents being tested in the last week we are pleased that this very anxious period is now over.

“We’re incredibly proud of the class of 2020 and it’s great news that they can now secure their future just like previous class years have.”