A groundswell of anger from pupils, parents and experts who are deeply unhappy at the way grades for British university entry are calculated risked getting worse on Wednesday after an apparent climbdown by the UK government as A-Level results loom.
With the coronavirus pandemic making it impossible to sit physical exams, pupils instead are being marked via a controversial exam board moderation system that takes into account mock exam results, teacher predictions and the historic performance of the school.
The school performance factor has been heavily criticised because it unfairly affects pupils from poorer areas.
One parent has launched a legal campaign against England’s qualification board over its failure to protect smart pupils at weaker schools.
Now, pupils in England receiving A-Level results on Thursday will be allowed to appeal the mark they are given if it is lower than their mock exam results or sit new exams in the autumn, but the decision has managed only to spark further uproar and confusion.
Experts have cautioned that traditionally pupils do worse in their mock exams but step it up a gear for when the real thing comes.
Rather than diffuse tensions, if anything it has made matters worse and underlines the widespread unease at how the situation has played out, albeit at an unprecedented period.
The UK government decision came only a day after the devolved administration in Scotland bowed to pressure and announced that more than 70,000 pupils studying Scottish equivalent qualifications would have their results restored to their teachers' assessments after complaints.
Geoff Barton, who heads the Association of School and College Leaders in the UK, said the government should not have rushed out a panicked and chaotic response.
"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," he said.
“They aren’t a set of exams which all conform to the same standards. The clue is in the name ‘mock’. And some students will not have taken them by the time that schools were closed in March. So, this immediately creates the potential for massive inconsistency.”
Mary Bousted, joint general-secretary of the National Education Union, said the extraordinary announcement meant pupils in England were still likely to receive lower results than in Scotland.
“For English pupils, their alternative to exam-board grades are the grades achieved in their mock exams which do not take into account, as do predicted grades, further progress in the months leading up to the real exam,” she said.
Much of the issue can be traced back to initial teacher-predicted grades earlier this year. As many as 40 per cent of A-Level grades are reportedly set to be downgraded by a standardisation because marks being submitted by teachers had been optimistically inflated by an average of 12 percentage points above those achieved in 2019.
While Mr Barton said the standardisation system remains important, others have criticised exam regulator Ofqual for a lack of transparency.
A government document says that it will not release the precise technical detail of the model itself until A-Level results are published on August 13.
Michael Bell, a father of an A-Level student, wants the modelling system Ofqual uses to be published in full and for the regulator to put in safeguards to protect talented pupils at weaker schools such as his daughter, Lexie.
He points out that for the pupils having to wait until autumn to sit physical examinations, the results will come too late if they want to enter university this year.
“It ignores the practicalities of studying for these exams – how will she access her tutor support and teaching? Does she have to stay at school for a further year?” he said.
The government has also confirmed that exam fees will continue and be set by exam boards.
Anger has also grown outside the UK after the release of A-Level results by Cambridge Assessment International Education on Tuesday, which issued more than 950,000 grades on Tuesday to close to 4,000 schools in 139 countries.
One of a number of A-Level providers in the UAE and a popular choice in Asia, it’s announcement that the majority of revised grades had been marked down sparked fears of further disappointment on Thursday.
A petition for Cambridge International to review its grades has been signed by nearly 15,000 people calling on it to review the grades it has given.
“After exchanging grades, there has been an extremely large number of students who have discovered some severe discrepancies between the grade that they were expecting and the grade that they actually received,” the petition reads.
“Such discrepancies were neither expected nor predicted by the school via their various assessments or predicted grades sent to universities,” it adds.
Pakistan’s Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood said he hoped that Cambridge International would take remedial measures.
“I have received many complaints about unfair grading and have conveyed to Cambridge (International) the concern of students,” he said.
Cambridge International has defended its approach, with a spokesperson saying they were aware of the disappointment in some pupils.
“We are aware of decisions taken by some government authorities in the UK, and we await more information early next week about how they will be implemented. Grades must still be awarded consistently and trusted by universities," the spokesperson said.
“Schools can make different sorts of appeals to us, and students can take our exams in October and November, with extra subjects available and alternative arrangements to support schools with distancing and safe reopening.”