Pressure is mounting on ministers to let teacher-assessed grades stand in England to avoid a second wave of exams chaos hitting GCSE results this week.
About 40% of A-Level results were downgraded after the exams regulator Ofqual used an algorithm based on schools’ previous results.
The government has so far stood by its system but the appeals process is far from clear.
Head teachers called the results “unfair and unfathomable”, with many gifted pupils losing top university places and pupils in sixth form and further education colleges particularly badly hit by the algorithm.
Students across the UK were not able to sit exams as normal this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Northern Ireland Education Minister Peter Weir said ahead of UK GCSE results day on Thursday it would scrap an algorithm that would have adjusted teacher assessed grades, by taking into account the past performance of individual schools.
In England, 280,000 A-level results were downgraded from teacher’s assessments on Thursday, almost 40% of the total. In Wales, 42% of A-level results predicted by teachers were lowered by the exam watchdog.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon apologised over downgraded exam results there and agreed to accept assessments by teachers.
Exam regulator Ofqual has faced criticism over the statistical model it used to decide the grades.
The government also faces growing concern from Conservative backbenchers. Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said the A-level algorithm should be abandoned, with teacher assessments or mock exam results used instead.
Wimbledon MP Stephen Hammond said Ofqual’s failure to publish an appeals process for A-levels was a “shambles”. He told BBC Breakfast a delay to GCSE results may be “the best thing to do in the short term”.
Tory MP for Poole Sir Robert Syms said his own son had seen his results lowered from A*ABB to all Bs. He told Times Radio it was “terribly unfair” for results to be determined by a computer algorithm.
Kate Green, Labour’s shadow education secretary, told BBC Breakfast: “We’re now going into week three of this debacle. We knew about the problem in Scotland two weeks ago, we know about the problem last week with A-levels.
“Here we are just two or three days away from GCSE results and the government still hasn’t got a grip on the problem.”
Labour has called for teacher-assessed grades to be used for A-levels in England and has said the option should remain open for GCSEs if similar problems emerge.
Former Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said it was “inevitable” that the government would have to accept the grades estimated by teachers.
“The great danger for Gavin Williamson now is he’s losing the confidence of head teachers around the country,” he said.
Using teacher-assessed grades is also supported by the Grammar School Heads Association and the private schools’ body, the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC).
Dr Simon Hyde, HMC’s incoming general secretary, said it was “the only way now to stop this intolerable strain on students and teachers”, despite the “unavoidable” grade inflation.
The Sixth Form Colleges Association said teacher’s predictions should be adopted if the algorithm cannot be made fair.
Many students are expected to appeal, although there has been confusion over the appeals process after Ofqual withdrew its guidance for challenging results within hours of publishing it on Saturday.
New guidelines are still being drawn up by Ofqual, the Department for Education said on Sunday evening.
‘Confidence is in short supply’
Parents will now be wondering why teacher assessed grades are good enough for 16-year-olds in Northern Ireland and Scotland but not in England?
Pressure has piled on the government to find a solution, with both grammar schools and sixth form colleges saying their pupils have lost out, further undermining confidence in this year’s grades in England.
If anyone should have done well based on previous years’ results it’s grammar schools that select on academic ability. Yet they say the A-level results were a “great injustice”.
Grammar schools have a totemic place in the Conservative Party so this will worry many backbenchers.
One of the fundamental roles of an exam regulator such as Ofqual is to maintain confidence in the system.
Yet confidence is in short supply – with Sixth Form Colleges Association analysis showing students getting lower A-level grades than similar 18-year-olds in previous years.
A Department for Education spokesman said hundreds of thousands of students had received a calculated grade to “enable them to progress” and the department wants “to build as much fairness into the appeals system as possible”.
Prof Tina Isaacs, who sits on Ofqual’s advisory board, said “the public is losing confidence in the system” and she was “very concerned indeed” that Thursday’s GCSE results would make the situation worse.
Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said he would be writing to Ofqual to start legal action over the “deeply flawed” allocation of grades, the third legal challenge the exam regulator faces over this year’s A-levels.
Meanwhile, hundreds of students held a demonstration in central London on Sunday to protests against grades they believe were unfairly awarded.
An analysis by the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA) looked at 65,000 exam entries in 41 subjects from its members and found that grades were 20% lower than historic performances for similar students in those colleges.
The SFCA said it had not found a single one where the results were above the three-year average.
Ofqual states that its objective for A-level results this year was to ensure “national results are broadly similar to previous years”.
The research showed that Ofqual “not only failed to produce broadly similar results, but has in fact produced worse results in every single subject”, the SFCA said.
Bill Watkin, chief executive of the SFCA, said Ofqual should “immediately recalibrate and rerun the model to provide all students with an accurate grade”.
He said if this fails to give results similar to previous years, students should receive the grades predicted by their teachers.
Dr Mark Fenton, chief executive of the Grammar School Heads Association, said the results had also been unfair to some of its students.
He told the BBC that “a great injustice has been done” with “utterly baffling” results for some students with the “only fair outcome” being to accept grades predicted by teachers.
Three of Oxford University’s colleges – Worcester, Wadham and St Edmund Hall – have confirmed that all places offered to UK students will be secured irrespective of their A-level results.
Ahead of GCSE results due to be released on Thursday, former Conservative Education Secretary Lord Kenneth Baker urged the government to delay the publication of grades until the situation surrounding A-levels had been resolved.
“If you are in a hole, stop digging,” Lord Baker said.
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