Amid continuing EduChaos, exam candidates should keep calm and be cautious

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Wishful thinking in this headline: many exam candidates seem doomed to disappointment

Amid continuing EduChaos, exam candidates should keep calm and be cautious

Ten days ago here on Voice of the North, former headteacher Bernard Trafford wrote about the injustice that seems set to be done to many exam candidates in August, when their GCSE and A level results are published.  Now growing calls for regulator Ofqual to change its approach are still apparently falling on deaf ears. Amid continuing EduChaos, then, exam candidates shouldn’t panic, but should keep calm, be cautious and be ready to act, if necessary, when those results come out.

Since I wrote on 12th July, it seems more likely than ever that, when August’s lockdown GCSE and A level results are published, there will be injustices done.

Dodgy grades as exam boards overrule teacher assessments

When the Covid crisis forced the cancellation of written exams, schools were required to produce Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) for each candidate, painstakingly calculated and ranked by teachers, based on their detailed knowledge of their pupils. However, if the CAGs exceed the school’s results in past years, they’ll be characterised as optimistic, and will be reduced. Thus an outstanding candidate in a struggling school is likely to be downgraded: similarly a whole school which is significantly improving its overall results.

Statistical analysis outlaws outliers

My technically-minded friend Dennis Sherwood explains the maths better than I can (here). In short, Ofqual admits overall exam results will rise (see the headline above), but has nonetheless adjusted CAGs downwards because “teachers found it hard to identify in advance which pupils would underperform on the day”. Well, they would, wouldn’t they?

No ifs, no buts, no appeals

It gets worse. In normal years, disappointed candidates or schools can ask for re-marks, even see the actual papers (digitally). In most years, many marks – though fewer grades – change: so vast is the paperchase of our modern exam system that examiner-reliability is all but impossible to guarantee.

Not this year. There can be no re-marks where no papers were sat: and Ofqual won’t countenance revising its regrading of schools’ CAGs.

Big guns blazing – but without effect?

As I reported, the Commons Education Select Committee has made no secret of its unhappiness.

Now independent schools are weighing in. Ian Power of HMC, the major grouping of powerfully academic private schools, called on Ofqual to change their minds and “show that what matters to government is fairness…”

Meanwhile, Barnaby Lenon, Chair of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), the sector’s umbrella body, sensibly urged universities who find applicants for places falling short of the A level grades they required of them to check with their schools.

What can parents do?

Right now, candidates and their parents can only keep calm and wait for results day. It’s possible that Ofqual will listen to the pleas coming from so many directions. Moreover, many A level candidates will be accepted despite missing their university offer grades: universities need the fee-income.

Come results day, if candidates’ results have dropped, parents should sit them down, discuss courses of action – then swing into action immediately.

GCSE candidates should consult their school about the next move, which may involve those written “non-resit” exams promised for the autumn: fortunately, 16-year-olds have time on their side.

Disappointed A level candidates have a range of options (this list’s not comprehensive):

  • If you didn’t get the grades, but are offered the place anyway, take it! If you’re not offered it, phone the university and try to talk them round (it often works).
  • If still unlucky, enter the Clearing system: in addition to the UCAS (centralised application system) website, major newspapers publish information about it daily, with astonishing detail of what subjects, and how many places, are available at which institution at that moment.
  • Your school will expect to help and advise on all this, but you (not mum or dad) must be prepared to spend literally hours, not least on the phone, in queuing systems: it’s amazing how often persistence is rewarded.
  • Consider going to university in a part of the country you hadn’t previously thought of.
  • If none of these avenues bears fruit, are you prepared to go round again, taking those autumn exams, or even re-sitting next summer?
  • Or maybe hang on to the grades you did get, and reapply next time round.
  • Or try an alternative route. Government’s making big promises about expanding apprenticeships, for example.

This isn’t a happy year for either exam candidates or their parents. But, by sticking together, talking through the issues and putting in the hours on the phone, school leavers and parents can generally find a way through.

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