The growing backlash over grade calculations represents a major failing of our A-level students

By Ben Norris and Jamie O’Dell

For those who take them, getting your grades on results day presents a huge amount of anxiety. A-levels are by no means the only path to success in life, but for so many the results contained in that envelope define the start of their adult lives as they head out into the world. 

It’s safe to assume that Gavin Williamson likely hasn’t had the best week. Pressure is mounting on the government from thousands of outraged students and teachers who feel the automated approach to grading has failed large swathes of students. Since there is evidence that the grading skews unfairly towards private schools, with students at comprehensives receiving the biggest markdowns, he has every reason to feel uncomfortable. 

One of the main questions, therefore, concerns the assumptions built into the algorithm that decided these grades. It is worth noting that Williamson did not say: “The danger is that pupils will be overpromoted into jobs that are beyond their competence”, as has been widely reported. But we know that the Conservative government has no issue with inequality; Boris Johnson has said on record that ‘some measure of inequality is essential’, and it is clear that the teachers whose judgement was trusted and prioritised – and the pupils awarded the best grades – have benefited from this. 

This pattern of disparity between different educational institutions has been replicated in the Stroud district. There is evidence emerging that local comprehensive schools have been marked down, while private school Wycliffe College has publicly celebrated exam results that are broadly similar to those awarded last year. The entirety of Rednock’s teacher-assessed grades for biology have been downgraded and, although this is currently subject to appeal, it will have and has had huge consequences for pupils’ access to their university courses. 

Much of the coverage has also been on those missing out on their places at Russell Group universities. However, approximately 50% of A-level students don’t go to university, which makes these downgradings hugely significant for those leaving school and going straight into the job market at the start of a major economic recession. It doesn’t require much imagination to figure out how significant this revision, be it from an A to a C to a C to a U, is when these are the grades you may rely upon in years to come.

At present, Williamson is under growing pressure to resign from his cabinet post, with the Labour party calling for the automated results assessment to be replaced with teacher assessments. According to the Guardian, Ofqual’s grades system was designed around schools’ previous results, resulting in nearly 40% of grades assessed by teachers being downgraded by the statistical model. As a result, private schools benefited disproportionately more than others, with students from the least-advantaged institutions the hardest hit. 

The bottom line is that the futures of thousands of students who may have performed better than their grades suggest have been affected by the last-minute decision to factor in mock results. For context, while 40% of grades were moderated down, only 2% of grades were moderated up, with 58% seeing no change, according to the BBC.  

While the dust is yet to settle there is a distinct possibility that the grades awarded won’t budge for many. This is evidenced further by the government’s decision to individualise its response, leaving students and schools to navigate the complex and often intimidating, although thankfully now free, appeals process, in line with Nicola Sturgeon’s recognition of a collective error being made regarding the grading of students in Scotland. The situation is continually evolving, with announcements of revisions to policies occurring almost daily.

The circumstances and challenges posed by the lockdown have been challenging for all walks of life, and the issue of coming up with a fair and representative alternative to the normal process of grading through some exams that accurately reflects the abilities of the student without devaluing the merit of a high grade is inarguably a tricky one. The overall proportion of top grades awarded rose to an all-time high this year, with 27.9% securing an A or above in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

However, the mass data doesn’t indicate the distribution of these high grades, which skewed unfairly towards pupils from more privileged backgrounds at private schools, who have benefited from what is effectively positive discrimination in their grading. Private schools recorded an average 4.7% increase in their A*-A grades: over double the increases of any type of state school. 

This disparity amongst these highest grades is critically important in the existing context of many of the UK’s ‘elite’ professions being disproportionately represented by people who were privately educated. A report last year found that 65% of senior judges, 44% of newspaper columnists, 44% of top actors and 39%, now 65%, of cabinet ministers, as well as 85% of all British Prime Ministers, were all privately educated. To put that into its proper context, just 7% of students are privately educated.

Privilege, social capital and inequalities are (re)produced in many ways, but there are few as potent as private schools. Which is, after all, why people pay so much for them. 

Take medicine as a further example. A government report in 2016 highlighted that 61% of medical students were privately educated (increasing from 51% in 1987), 80% of medical school applicants come from 20% of schools, and that just 4% of medical students come from working class backgrounds. 

The fact that a non-selective state school like Rednock therefore has had its entire cohort of Biology A-levels marked down therefore, demonstrates locally that inequalities in access to ‘elite’ professions have been perpetuated by the government’s handling of A-level grading. The essential benefits that increased diversity has for the medical profession, which the profession is now further failing to harness, being an example of the social harm this does. 

According to Sky News, private schools saw an increase of 2.3% in pupils being awarded grades C or above – compared to 2.5% at comprehensives, 0.2% at secondary selectives and 0.3% at sixth form and further education colleges. Bizarrely, despite the clear implications of an inherent educational inequality in these figures, the exams watchdog Ofqual declared there was no evidence to suggest a bias against pupils based on their socioeconomic status and that moderating was needed given “generous” initial assessments that predicted “implausibly” high grades. 

As we wait for a potential round two of exam results controversy with the release of GCSE results next week, we have to ask ourselves if we are willing to accept such blatant inequality, not just in these results but in our education system as a whole. 

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