My name is Lillian, I am 16 years old and anxiously waiting for my GCSE results this Thursday.
In response to this year’s A level results, the Prime Minister commented that the results are ‘robust, good and dependable’, adding that ‘where pupils are disappointed, where they feel they could have done better, where they feel there’s an injustice been done to them… they can re-sit.’
Students, parents, and teachers alike can agree that there has been an ‘injustice done to them’ after 40% of students were undermarked and downgraded from the predicted grades submitted to exam boards by teachers.
The lack of information regarding exams since their cancellation has provoked uncertainty in students across the nation. Should a student continue to revise in lockdown to take a re-sit in an exam when the original grade is unknown? And if the appeals process results in a higher grade, should the university offer the place again after the initial offer on results day was withdrawn? These are just a few of the questions that students are demanding answers and clarity to.
Following the announcement of the summer 2020 exams back in March, the Department of Education later stated that exam grades would be calculated using an ‘algorithm’ to moderate teacher predicted grades to ensure fairness and give students the grades they deserve.
Despite one’s perception of an ‘algorithm’ to be complex and consider a multitude of factors, where the futures of the next generation are at stake, its fundamental flaw was being too simplistic. Grades were produced by combining the ranking of a student’s ability within the school and how well that school had performed in recent years.
As a national picture of results unfolded, the algorithm proved to have no correlation between a pupil’s prior performance and estimated grade. A bright child in a low performing school was more likely to have lower grades than an underachieving child in a school with consistently high results. Rapidly improving schools were also at a disadvantage, the improvement in standards failing to be reflected – just one example of an ‘injustice’.
The clear winners are independent schools with the proportion of students attaining the top coveted grades increasing by 4.7 percentage points. The biggest drop in grades between teacher’s predictions and estimated grades was among the poorest students, trapping pupils in the disadvantage of their postcode.
Based on teacher estimated grades, 38% of results would have been A or A* prompting calls of outcry over ‘grade inflation’. The impersonal algorithm can, and has, ruined personal ambitions and whilst the moderation process did protect averages on a national level, it was ultimately the individuals who were left out with every downgrade having an implication on someone’s future.
And if students were looking to seek any solace, the numerous government U-turns have failed to provide any reassurance or clarity over the shambolic awarding of results.
After the backlash regarding Scottish exams, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, stated that the system was ‘fundamentally a fair one’ but a day later at the eleventh hour announced a new ‘triple lock’ as a ‘safety net’. This tweaking of methodology hours before results were published was a panic-stricken pointless move, it was too late for universities to change their offers. This only instilled further anxiety in students – the credibility of the government’s decisions was diminishing fast.
In my opinion awarding a grade based on the result of a mock does not reflect the ability of a student as there is no standardised practice for mock exams within a school, let alone the entire country. In my experience, some departments produce a paper to be very realistic of the real thing whilst other departments set their own questions and timings. Some students revised for their mocks in abundance, using past papers and having a revision timetable whilst others stayed up until 2am the night before, cramming all the knowledge from the textbook. One can only wonder how the exam regulator Ofqual can come up with criteria over what validates a ‘valid’ mock; this criteria was then suspended hours after publication to be reviewed in full, instilling further uncertainty.
There are a plentiful of students who only excel at the last moment, so it is difficult for a teacher to estimate a grade by making a judgement holistically. It is common for pupils to start revising after the January mocks, yet this effort and improvement is not showcased in the estimated grades. Some parents made personal sacrifices by providing their child with additional private tuition in preparation for the summer exams, only for their child’s results to be downgraded. Students at the borderline of a grade boundary have been placed in a state of worry and anxiety, with the difference of one grade affecting their next steps.
The school which I attend requires a certain number of points to be admitted in the sixth form – falling short of this entry criteria by just one or two points can place a great deal of worry and anxiety on students over whether their offer of a place will be withdrawn. The sixth form is already oversubscribed. Universities and colleges have been told to be lenient regarding the admissions process but there is no obligation to do so – ultimately it is their decision to accept a student. Worcester College at Oxford University has upheld all its offers to students offered a place but other institutions have rigidly stuck to their own admissions criteria; it now seems to be a lottery if you can progress on the path you planned to follow.
Yet the government seems to disregard all this, focusing on the ‘success’ with a record high 28% of students achieving A and A* grades. This is fitting as those in the highest positions of power are not experiencing the stress of your plans for your next steps being shattered and destroyed. The ubiquitous stress felt by students, parents and teachers is unlikely to disappear until a suitable, practical, and realistic solution is given by the government. Perhaps students are now nostalgic for the stress and revision that comes with exams. But this also begs the question: what is the point in working hard if merit is dependent on your socio-economic status?