A-level results – busting the myths

A-level results day is probably one of the most emotionally-charged days in a school’s calendar.

Every year sees a heady mix of elation for some and disappointment for others, combined with the fact that A-level results mark a young person’s transition from one stage of their lives to another.

All this will be the same this year, but thanks to COVID-19 it will also be very different.

On 18th March the Government announced that schools would close to all but the children of key workers and the vulnerable, and that A-level and GCSE exams would be cancelled.

There then followed a scramble to put in place a methodology for deciding students’ grades without sitting an examination. It has been done in haste and is far from perfect, subject to changes even at the end of last week, but it is what schools have been instructed to cooperate with and what we as teachers have had to work with.

Among the rush and continual amendments miscommunication has flourished. Lurid headlines have condemned the process before it has started, and unjustly laid blame for hypothetical problems at the door of the teaching profession. First and foremost has been the erroneous claim that teachers alone will decide a student’s grade, followed swiftly by unfounded accusations of potential bias and a desire to ‘inflate’ grades to protect a school’s reputation.

I would like to use this article to explain the process and dispel some myths.

Heads of schools across Devon have worked together collaboratively to interpret the demands of the new regime and to explain it to students and their parents and guardians.

The final results achieved by students will be decided by Ofqual (the examinations regulator) and the Department for Education.

Decisions are made via information from schools which includes a rank order of students based on their overall performance and anticipated grades for each student. At Colyton this information was multiple-checked by teaching peers, the senior leadership team and ultimately me as Head. The data was then run through the Fischer Family Trust as an unconnected third party to ensure that each result was reasonable, and adjustments were made where needed.

Schools then submitted this data to Ofqual so it could analyse the results by school and subject, taking into account a number of factors including: the number of grades in each subject awarded in previous years nationally, as well as by each school; the previous performance of pupils in GCSE and end of primary school public examinations; the past performance of the school by individual subject, and; the past performance of pupils nationally in each subject.

The most difficult part of this process has been ranking students within subjects – we have never had to do this before. The reasoning behind it is that it would help Ofqual to fine tune a student’s final result based on, for example, whether their school thought they were a ‘high’ or ‘low’ B. Rank order is challenging even when there is a wide spread of ability. Where, as at Colyton Grammar School, the ability spread is narrow then many students will perform at exactly the same level. This was raised with Ofqual many months ago.

However, we have since learned that teacher-assessed grades have not been used to assess results in 60% of A-level entries in popular subjects and the ‘vast majority’ of GCSE entries. This information came to light via the TES last Friday.

Until the end of last week the scope for students to appeal against their grades was limited to ‘clerical error’. Following a backlash from head teachers and the fallout from last week’s experiences in Scotland, Ofqual has softened its stance allowing schools to appeal against results in ‘exceptional’ cases.

A-level results day is characterised by highs and lows, celebration and disappointment, and this year will be no different. The added complication of the pandemic assessment process will bring with it other concerns and stresses, which is why heads across Devon are facilitating the opportunity for pupils to safely come to school on results day to support each other and to get the help and advice of their teachers. We have not nurtured them for seven years to abandon them at the final hurdle.

Tim Harris is Head Teacher at Colyton Grammar School, which maintained its Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ rating following the final Ofsted school inspection before lockdown.

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