UK schools fear backlash from parents over 'unfair' A-level exam results

Donna Ferguson
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA</span>
Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA

Schools in England and Wales are braced for a fierce backlash from students and their parents this week, amid fears that A-level results to be published on Thursday will unfairly penalise disadvantaged students.

Related: How are exam grades being decided in England this year?

Since pupils were unable to sit their exams, their grades will be calculated on the basis of teachers’ estimates, combined with a statistical model based on past results at the school and the student’s prior attainment. In Scotland last week thousands of students received poorer results than they expected when a similar system was used.

Although an appeals process was belatedly announced last week by the exam watchdog Ofqual, parents say it is not fit for purpose. Pupils will not be allowed to appeal individually and schools will have to pay a fee to challenge grades. Critics of the standardised system say that bright but disadvantaged students at poor-performing or improving state schools may have their grades unfairly downgraded.

Southend sixth-former Lexie Bell has been predicted an A* and two A grades. But because no candidate at her school has achieved above a C grade in the last three years in her A-level subjects, her father, Michael, fears her results will be downgraded by Ofqual’s statistical model.

Michael Bell with daughter, Lexie who fears that the predicted As she is expecting will be marked down due to her school&#x002019;s previous lower results in her subjects.
Michael Bell with daughter, Lexie who fears that the predicted As she is expecting will be marked down due to her school’s previous lower results in her subjects. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

“Ofqual is effectively tying in students to the performance of previous students at their school, which is in no way representative of an individual’s ability to do well,” he said, adding that the appeals process, which can take up to 84 days, was far too drawn out. “It will take too long. By the time their appeals have been decided, pupils will already have lost their places at university. And like in Scotland, it should be free and you shouldn’t have to go through the school to appeal. Because if your face doesn’t fit and the school doesn’t like you, they can just say no.”

Bell is currently crowdfunding to mount a judicial review against Ofqual. “I can’t tell you how stressed my daughter is about this. She’s worked very hard and if her grades get marked down, because of the grades the school has achieved previously, the sense of injustice will be huge.”

The Social Mobility Commission said Ofqual has “a moral imperative to address any injustices that occur”. Commissioner Sammy Wright, a deputy headteacher, said: “Overwhelmingly, disadvantaged students attend poorly performing schools. My biggest concern is not for the kids who want to appeal, but for the kids who don’t even think to appeal. There are a lot of students who, if they get lower grades than they expect, will just simply take that as a knock to their sense of self.”

Ofqual has admitted that a substantial number of students will receive at least one exam grade that has been adjusted from their teacher’s assessment as a result of the moderation process.

The watchdog said that if it had stuck with all the teacher-assessed grades, results would have gone up by 12% at A-level and 9% at GCSE. Instead, it has only allowed grades to increase by around 2% at A-level and up to 1% at GCSE.

Many students will assume it was their teacher who was responsible for pushing down their grades, Wright said. “They will change their life choices on the basis of these results. It will have a huge impact on their lives, but unlike in normal years, they don’t have the security of knowing there is some kind of relationship with something they’ve actually done. Psychologically, that is a very difficult situation to put students in.”

The Sutton Trust, an educational charity that champions social mobility, said it was vital that a robust appeals process, which balances fairness with practicality, is put in place. It added that universities should take the exceptional factors affecting applicants this year into account.

“We are really keen that universities give poorer kids, particularly, a bit of leeway on these exam results,” said CEO James Turner. “This has been an exceptional year and the pandemic has affected the poorest the most.”

An Ofqual spokesperson said: “In designing the statistical model we took a number of decisions that work in students’ favour and mean that results overall will be no worse than previous years – and indeed slightly better. We are confident the model is the best possible under the circumstances. Following an early review of the data we expect the vast majority of grades students receive will be the same as their centre assessment grades, or within one grade.

“Students can appeal, through their school or college, if they believe an error has been made or that something has gone wrong in their case.”