Exam results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland: Q&A

With A-level results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to be published on Thursday, and GCSE results to follow next week, pupils, teachers and parents will have a more anxious time than usual after Scotland’s experience last week. Where are we now?

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What will A-levels look like?

Nationally, the A-level results announced by the exam regulator Ofqual will be very similar to previous years – and that is the reason for the moderation system it has designed, to maintain year-on-year consistency. But that’s what also happened in Scotland, and it backfired spectacularly when applied to individuals.

What can pupils expect?

Nick Gibb, the schools minister for England, has confirmed the Guardian’s findings that 40% of the teacher assessments submitted to Ofqual have been downgraded by its algorithm, which relies heavily on the GCSE results of each student and on the three-year averages of A-levels in each course obtained at each school. So compared with predictions that some will have received, the moderated results could be a shock – and could create many unhappy families.

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Will the impact be the same for all pupils?

The short answer is no: the schools likely to do well are those with consistently good levels of attainment, such as grammar schools or leading independent schools, making them more likely to obtain a predictable share of good grades. Students in small courses with fewer than five candidates may also do well, since Ofqual has given teacher assessment a more influential role in that case. But the Guardian’s analysis suggests that comprehensive schools, with frequent annual fluctuation in class size and grades, will see more volatility.

What about GCSE results?

It’s possible the impact of Ofqual’s algorithm will be felt even more widely on GCSE candidates. While A-levels are taken by a higher-attaining strand, GCSEs are taken by almost everyone, meaning that there is a wider spread of abilities involved. While course sizes are larger and may be more consistent, Ofqual is only using two years of past data. And prior attainment – the other key metric used by Ofqual – dates back five years, to when this year’s GCSE candidates took standardised tests in primary school, making that data more erratic for individuals.

Why is the government making abrupt changes in England?

Previously, there was no option for individual students to appeal against their grades on academic grounds. But after seeing what happened in Scotland – and fearing a similar outcome – the Westminster government made a U-turn of its own on Tuesday evening, and announced that students would be able to use their mock exam grades earlier this year as a grounds for appeal, if they are “validated” by their school.

What do teachers and heads think about the new appeal route?

Many teachers reacted with anger and shock at the announcement, especially among heads who had cancelled mock exams because of the coronavirus lockdown that closed schools to most pupils in March. They also say they were not consulted about the change.

Can using mock exams avert protests?

Probably not. Every school conducts mock exams differently, and it is unclear how many can fulfil whatever conditions the government and Ofqual will apply. So that creates an immediate unfairness, between those pupils who have valid mock grades, and those who do not.

How did Gavin Williamson get boxed in?

He failed to make a convincing case that the system he backed to award grades was the best available. Williamson could have done more to defend avoiding grade inflation. But as Scotland’s John Swinney told his parliament this week: “We now accept that the risk of undermining the value of qualifications is outweighed by a concern that young people, particularly from working class backgrounds, may lose faith in education and form the view that no matter how hard you work, the system is against you.”

What could happen next?

Scotland’s decision has created big problems for London, Cardiff and Belfast, by allowing teacher assessments to be used instead of moderated results. Hence the Westminster government’s concession on appeals using mock exams. The next would be to widen the criteria for appeals, to allow evidence other than mock exam results. But if protests follow on a similar scale, teacher assessments would be the obvious endpoint.

Is Scotland a good guide for what happens to grades in England?

Not really. Although the principles used were similar – maintaining consistency between years – the models were different. Scotland’s model appears to have less reliance on pupils’ prior attainment. But Scotland was also allowing higher grade inflation, about double that of England, and it failed to head off the protests.

Why not use teacher assessments?

There is plenty of research to suggest that teacher assessments are less reliable than other forms of assessment. And in the rush to close schools in March, the government failed to give training and fuller guidance to teachers and schools about making accurate assessments for the exams that had been scrapped. So teacher assessments are also likely to vary widely between schools.

What about Wales and Northern Ireland?

Wales has already acted, by announcing that students’ A-level grades cannot be lower than the AS-levels they received last year, thus putting a floor under expectations. But the attention remains on England because of its size, and because how it reacts may trigger similar responses in the devolved administrations. If England follows Scotland and reverts to teacher assessments, there is every incentive for the others to do the same.

What does it mean for university places?

Universities in England are already eager to recruit as many students as possible, and the government has told them they can recruit on “holistic” grounds this year, meaning that they can ignore A-level results if they wish. But universities are warning that the use of mock exam grades in appeals could delay and prolong this year’s admissions process and clearing, especially if students use higher mock grades to shop around.

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