Schools able to appeal over students' GCSE and A-level results

Sally Weale Education correspondent
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Jeff Holmes/PA</span>
Photograph: Jeff Holmes/PA

Schools in England will be able to appeal against their students’ GCSE and A-level results in certain circumstances after an outcry this week over results in Scotland.

The government has sought to allay mounting fears about GCSE and A-level results, promising that the appeal process will ensure that students with exceptional circumstances are not held back by the way grades have been calculated. However, individual students will not be able to challenge the grades themselves.

In Scotland, where the results for higher exams came out on Tuesday, a quarter of teacher-predicted grades were marked down during the standardisation process, which takes into account a school’s prior attainment.

According to new clarification from the exam watchdog Ofqual, schools in England will be able to lodge appeals if they can show that grades are lower than expected because previous cohorts are not “representative” of this year’s students.

Critics of the Scottish system complained that pupils were being marked on their school’s record rather than on individual merit, putting high-performing pupils in historically low-attaining schools at a disadvantage and “baking in” the attainment gap, with disadvantaged students’ results downgraded by a greater margin than their more affluent peers.

Ofqual said schools and colleges in England would be able to appeal if they could prove that historical data used to standardise grades was not a reliable indicator of this year’s results due to a change of circumstances. Examples given include schools where there has been a significant change in leadership, where objective evidence can be provided that previous grades are unlikely to be representative.

Ofqual also cites a switch from single-sex to co-educational, and schools that have experienced a “monumental event”, such as flooding or fire, resulting in relocation that may have brought down one year’s results in the historical data.

In guidance published a week ahead of A-level results day, Ofqual confirmed that individual pupils would not be allowed to challenge grades themselves – unlike in Scotland – and that their schools and colleges would need to appeal against results on their behalf. Pupils can, however, submit allegations about bias or discrimination.

Exams were cancelled in both England and Scotland this summer as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, and teachers were asked to supply predicted grades and pupil rankings, which were then moderated using a statistical model designed to ensure consistency.

Ofqual has already said that this year’s results in England will be “slightly higher” overall than last year, though – as in Scotland – large numbers of teacher-predicted grades have been revised down, which is likely to cause widespread disappointment among pupils and their teachers.

The shadow education secretary, Kate Green, said the “disastrous” handling of results in Scotland showed “what can go wrong when computer algorithms drive students’ grades, and politicians wash their hands of responsibility”.

She said: “Young people deserve to have their hard work assessed on merit, but the system risks baking in inequality and doing most harm to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, those from ethnic minority groups, and those with special educational needs and disabilities.”

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said: “No system could be a perfect substitute for real exams, but I welcome the appeals guidance confirmed by Ofqual today, to make the process as fair as possible and make sure all students get a grade that allows them to progress.

“It is vital that students with exceptional circumstances are not held back by the way grades have been calculated – including those who are highly talented in schools that have not in the past had strong results, or where schools have undergone significant changes, such as a new leadership team. This appeals process does this. Students will also have the opportunity to take exams this autumn if they are unhappy with their grades.”

Salsabil Elmegri, NUS vice-president for further education, said: “We have warned that using predicted grades will not reflect the ability of disadvantaged and black students. [The] highers results in Scotland should be a warning to the UK government – now they must act to protect students.

“It is also very concerning that the appeals process has not been designed to make it easy for students to challenge unfair results. I’m calling on the government to provide extra support for students to appeal, allow them to appeal their grades, and make sure that no student is charged for the inconvenience of taking exams in the autumn.”