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ISC commentary: Barnaby Lenon reflects on issues with Year 13 results 2020

Posted on: 14 Aug 2020
Posted by: Barnaby Lenon

We have had the International Baccalaureate, Scottish, English, Northern Irish and Welsh public exam results in a year when exams had not been sat. There has been general uproar. What have we learnt so far?

Many reports are focussing on overall statistics but this ignores the fact that the number of individuals whose results are wrong is still quite large.

The Government needs to act in the interests of every young person adversely affected by the situation and to ensure the scale of appeals does not simply crash the system.

Clearly, Ofqual had an impossible job. Its staff believe in fairness and accuracy, so to be required to produce exam results when exams had not been sat was a tough ask, especially as teacher-assessed coursework (which could have been used) has been cut right back since 2014. Much of the criticism has been aimed at the regulator but it is important to realise that there was no good answer. That is why we must not end up in a situation where this experiment is repeated next year.

The algorithm clearly had major flaws. What a pity we weren’t allowed to see the algorithm before results day – someone might have spotted these flaws. The big problem seems to be that a school who had a tail of weak results in a given subject last year (maybe an E and a U) gets assigned an E and a U to the two lowest-performing pupils in that subject this year even if those students were clearly on track for better grades.

Some universities have responded badly, rejecting good students who missed their offer by one grade. Of course they may have over-booked and now need to turn some away. But do they really understand that these grades are very unreliable at the individual level? Do they even know that the teacher predictions were not used in the algorithm in most cases?

Governments and exam regulators have been keen to claim that the exams this year ‘have the same currency’ as every other year. One understands why they make this claim – the results this year need credibility if they are going to give access to universities. But the truth is that they are not the same currency. No exam was sat and the main method by which grades have been awarded has been laying the teachers’ rankings of pupils in each subject on top of the historic grade distribution achieved by each school over the past two to three years. Such a system means that many students have simply not been awarded the grade they would have achieved had they sat an exam.

The emphasis has been on ‘getting the results right nationally’ which is not the same thing at all as getting the results right for individual students. Students who go to selective schools with consistently good results do well out of the system. Those who go to schools whose results are weak or inconsistent do less well. So while the national distribution of grades will be similar to that of last year, that does not mean that individuals got the right result.

This was naive because, on results day, while the majority of students got the grades they needed and deserved, many did not.

The option of taking A-levels/GCSEs in October/November looks unattractive. Most students will not be considering this option until they have appealed; many of them will not have done the same amount of work since March than they would in a normal year. Most of those taking GCSEs transfer to a new school for sixth form so it is hard to see them getting much tuition, while A-level students have left school and may find it hard to access tuition as well.

Barnaby Lenon is chairman of the Independent Schools Council

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