U-turn on exams may create new set of problems in England

The government has abandoned the awarding of A-level and GCSE results in England based on computer modelling, in favour of teacher-assessed grades. But the decision may create a new set of problems.

Teacher assessments – uneven and unequal?

A decision to revert to teacher-assessed grades will be welcomed by many, after the manifold injustices of last week’s A-level results, and none more so than the unfortunate teenagers whose lives have been thrown into chaos by the uncertainty triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.

What does the UK government’s U-turn on exam results mean?

Nevertheless, many in the sector point out that teacher assessments – or centre assessed grades (CAG) as they have become known – are not a perfect solution and may create their own inequalities. While teachers will have done their best to be fair and accurate, inevitably and unavoidably individual schools will have taken a different approach when drawing up grades for each pupil in each subject. Some will have been more cautious, and their students will unfortunately pay the price for others who have been more optimistic. Some critics also worry about teacher bias affecting assessments, but at this late stage most commentators seem to be converging on the view that while CAGs are not ideal, they are a better option than Ofqual’s deeply flawed algorithm.

Universities – too many students, not enough places

Covid-19 has already been devastating for universities, like so many other sectors, but with strong domestic numbers holding up they may have dared to think they were finally turning a corner. However, the government’s U-turn in England throws them back into a spin. Students who lost out on their first-choice university because of lower than expected moderated grades will now understandably seek redress, creating problems of capacity, staffing, placements and facilities, particularly with the social distancing requirements that will be in place when students arrive in September.

Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, warned: “The university admissions round usually last for months. Universities try to look at candidates as individuals and to make careful and considered judgments, just as the government has repeatedly urged them to do.

“If you rip up the rules after the results are out and with only a few weeks to go before the academic year starts, it is a major challenge. Institutions will do their best by their applicants but there are always limits, internally imposed and externally imposed, on how much they can expand and that is doubly true when social distancing rules are in force.”

The lifting of the emergency cap on student numbers will ease the pressure to a degree. It was introduced earlier in the year to try to prevent the damaging effects of competition for students between institutions seeking to recruit more UK students to replace the international students staying away because of coronavirus. The cap applied in England would be each institution’s previous forecast intake, plus 5%.

As Hillman points out, lifting it will not help much if you want to do medicine, because the numbers will still be controlled by the Department for Health and it will not ease the physical capacity constraints at your average Oxbridge college.

“But there are, I think, quite a few circumstances where it will genuinely help. For example, you may well have spare places because of a reduction in international students,” he says.

What about grade inflation and the students that follow?

When exams were cancelled, the government asked the exam regulator Ofqual to come up with a standardisation model that would award results to pupils but would avoid inflating grades. Grade inflation has been an obsession for the Conservatives, who – led by Michael Gove as the then education secretary – drew up an entirely new set of qualifications to help put a stop to what they saw as corrosive, year-on-year inflation under previous administrations.

The Ofqual algorithm was effective in producing relatively similar national results to previous years – as it was designed to – but with the scrapping of the algorithm, and a return to the use of centre assessed grades there will inevitably be grade inflation. Last month, Ofqual said initial analysis suggested that if all students were given final grades based solely on CAGs, overall A-level results for England would be up compared with 2019 by 6 percentage points at A*, 12 percentage points at A and above, and 13 percentage points at B and above. At GCSE overall results would be up by 6 percentage points at grade 7 and above, and up by 9 percentage points at grade 4 and above.

For students that follow, particularly those now in year 12 due to sit their exams next summer, the fear is that their grades will look inferior and that university places that would have otherwise been available to them may be taken up by students forced to defer this year.

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