Allowing disappointed candidates to cite mock exams to appeal their results? It’s a mockery.

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Bernard's feeling strongly about government's late and ineffectual intervention in the exam results fiasco: it's using mock exams to make a mockery.

It’s nice to be proved right: but former headteacher Bernard Trafford would have preferred to be proved wrong about the A level results fiasco.  Scotland led the way into educhaos: England followed, as sure as night follows day. As for government’s last-minute wheeze of allowing disappointed candidates to cite mock exams to appeal their results? It’s a mockery. As playwright Willy Russell once said, you can’t French-polish a turd.

I said it would be bad: Scotland proved it first. I had hoped that someone, somewhere (maybe in England, with prior warning), might pull a rabbit from the hat and sort out the educhaos. Government tried, too late: in any case, it wasn’t a rabbit but a turkey. Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer rightly labelled the outcome “shambolic”.

How did we get here?

When written exams were cancelled due to the Covid pandemic, schools and teachers were asked to produce ranked Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) for every candidate. As I wrote in June, these predictions were painstakingly assembled: but naturally wouldn’t try to predict exam-room freezes, illness or the other disasters that strike a proportion of candidates.

The regulator, Ofqual, claimed that, if it had accepted the CAGs submitted, the results would have seen grade inflation of 12%: to maintain standards and credibility (the discussion of such terms could fill a book). So they applied an algorithm (an overused word) to bring this year’s results into line with previous years: and also applied it to individual schools’ previous results, at a stroke outlawing their having an overall good year and (even more unfairly, I think) their having the occasional outstanding candidate. Statistics and statisticians hate outliers.

And the outcome?

School heads in England are reporting as seeing as many as 40% of their schools’ CAGs downgraded. On BBC Radio 4, one described how her school would not predict an A* grade except where the candidate was truly, gold-standard exceptional. The A* grades her school submitted were all marked down to Bs. That’s injustice, if you like.

Geoff Barton, leader of my old union, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) quoted one member head:

“I don’t think I have ever felt as powerless, angered, saddened and frustrated for a group of students in my entire career. We are staggered by how much our students have been downgraded. We are failing to understand the methodology. We feel responsible for our students but powerless to do anything for them.”  

Barton himself commented:

“The idea of introducing at the eleventh hour a system in which mock exam results trump calculated grades beggars belief. The government doesn’t appear to understand how mock exams work. They aren’t a set of exams which all conform to the same standards. The clue is in the name ‘mock’…”

Many have added that mocks serve different purposes between and even within schools, and are held at very different times during that upper-sixth (Year 13) year: to give candidates a fright, to encourage them, to give them a kick up the pants. How will Ofqual judge the nature and reliability of individual schools’ mock results, let alone compare them? My guess is that they won’t, and they’ll reject appeals based on them, whatever government  says. But they won’t report back on that before next week…Barton’s anger continues:

“Schools and colleges have spent months diligently following detailed guidance to produce centre-assessed grades only to find they might as well not have bothered.

“If the government wanted to change the system it should have spent at least a few days discussing the options rather than rushing out a panicked and chaotic response.”

Couldn’t it have been done better?

Of course, it’s Ofqual’s job to protect and ensure standards over time. As Geoff Barton says:

There are… good reasons for having this system in place because it ensures that this year’s grades are roughly in line with those of previous years, and this is important in terms of fairness to students over time.”

But could it have been done better? My oft-quoted friend Dennis Sherwood, who understands numbers, reckons it could, if only Ofqual had trusted teachers with vital information:

“If teachers had been instructed how to do the rounding, if teachers had been instructed just how close they had to be to the average and if teachers had been given the same calculation tool that looked after all this techy stuff consistently and ‘behind the scenes’, then they might have submitted CAGs-that-the-algorithm-first-thought-of, these being the ‘right answers’. And even better if they had also been allowed to submit well-evidenced outliers. 

“But in the absence of these rules, teachers were aiming at moving goalposts in the dark. No wonder there have been so many misses.

“My thesis is that ‘plausible overbids’ are not the fault of the teachers. To me, the blame lies at the door of the SQA and Ofqual for not making the rules clear.”

He also reckons that any schools or teachers trying to cheat or game the system, the “chancers” as he calls them , would have been easily spotted as outliers.

Will appeals bear fruit? Will candidates still get their university places?

I’m not convinced that appeals will go far: but in England (not in Scotland) candidates who feel robbed can still “re-sit” in October or November the papers they never sat in the summer – at the cost of a year out of full-time education and, presumably, with no teaching received in their subjects since March.

How either the revised appeals system or re-sits will work, if at all, is still open to conjecture.  I still reckon universities will bend on grades in order to fill their places – as will employers – so my advice to candidates and parents stands.

At least she apologised

It’s a mess, and a disgrace. The last word goes to Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who apologised in these terms:

“Our concern, which was to make sure the grades young people got were as valid as in any other year, perhaps led us to think too much about the overall system and not enough about the individual pupil. 

“That has meant too many students feel they have lost out on grades they should have had, and that that has happened not as a result of anything they have done but a statistical model or algorithm.”

Indeed. Individuals and their life-chances, not statistics, are what exams or qualifications are for. At least she apologised.

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