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Will the UK have a second year of A-level results chaos?

A grades awarded in almost half of exams amid ‘rampant grade inflation’

This year’s A-Level results are facing another year of intense scrutiny after it emerged that almost half of today’s grades are expected to be A*s or As.

Around 19% of exams will be graded A*, while 30% will get A grades, according to The Times. The results come after last year’s “exams fiasco” in which 38.6% of A-levels were graded A or A*, up from 25.5% in 2019.

Amid fears of “rampant grade inflation”, says the paper’s education editor Nicola Woolcock, “pupils will achieve roughly a grade higher, on average, than they would have in 2019, the last year that exams were taken”

And while private school grades “are believed to have come under greater scrutiny from exam boards”, she adds, “the gap between state and private will probably grow”.

What happened last year? 

After it was determined that exams would not be able to go ahead due to the disruption to students caused by the pandemic, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson last year requested that statisticians at Ofqual, the exams regulator for England, set about devising a system for awarding grades.

When the results came out, however, 39% of students found that their grades had been downgraded by Ofqual’s algorithm which based its weightings on each school’s historical results. According to the BBC, at fault was the “preoccupation with maintaining standards” which, in the end, “came at too high a price”.

Boris Johnson first insisted that the results were “robust”, “good” and “dependable for employers”. But just days later, following Ofqual’s sudden withdrawal of its criteria for appealing grades, the government was forced into an embarrassing U-turn.

Instead of using the Ofqual system, results came to be based on teachers’ predictions rather than those of a controversial algorithm.

What is the plan for this year?

With exams across the UK cancelled for another year, schools have once again been given the job of coming up with “teacher-assessed grades” for their students. However, many young people remain worried about how their grades have been calculated, The i says.

One of the main complaints is that, in a repeat of last year, schools have been given considerable autonomy over how to decide grades. Consequently, students fear this could leave them disadvantaged relative to their peers in schools doling out more generous grades. 

“Different schools have handled things very differently, so some had lots and lots of assessments, some didn’t,” Ollie Green, a 16-year-old campaigner from London, told the paper.

Students are not alone in their concerns about grading. Professor Lee Elliot Major, an expert on social mobility, told The Times: “I think there are some really genuine concerns that social mobility will go backwards this year. The gaps in achievement have widened during the significant learning loss of the last 18 months, which we know from research has disproportionately affected poorer pupils.”

There are also concerns that distribution of grades will not be consistent across schools due to unclear guidance on how marks should be awarded.

Jon Coles, head of United Learning and a former Ofqual adviser, told the paper he has “not heard of widespread challenge by exam boards to schools’ results”.

“All through this there has been the question of whether there could be a meaningful process of ensuring consistency”, he said. “Frankly, I don’t think there has been. Schools have done their best with the guidance they have had, but they haven’t had the information or process they’d need to be fully consistent.”

The system of appeal is another issue of contention, with many students arguing that the grounds for challenging results are too narrow.

Equally problematic is the diminished number of places being offered by the country’s leading universities. Many universities were forced to take thousands more students than they expected last year after the government’s U-turn on grades, but this year – with grade inflation anticipated again – some top universities have made fewer offers. 

According to The Guardian, putting off enrolment until next year may not offer a solution. “Students thinking of waiting until 2022 could find things just as competitive then,” the paper says. “The trend in rising grades is likely to continue and the start of a 10-year surge in the number of 18-year-olds will put even more pressure on places at popular institutions.”

Yet another issue of concern is that pupils leaving school without doing any exams will be looked down on by employers, The Telegraph says. Their qualifications will “absolutely” be viewed differently by future employers, according to John Nield, a fellow at the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors and former chief examiner.

“There will be an asterisk against those who did exams in 2020, 2021 and 2022,” he told the paper. “Employers will say ‘that was the first Covid year, that was the second…’ It will carry on for years.”

Meanwhile, schools are bracing for legal challenges, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has warned, with his members already receiving threats from parents that they have “a lawyer lined up” if their children miss out on the top grades.

Despite the uncertainty and concern, an Ofqual spokesman defended the system that has been put in place to replace exams. 

In a statement to The i, the spokesperson said: “We understand students’ concerns [but] the approach is the fairest possible after the government cancelled exams, and enables students to progress to the next stage.”

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