I defended Ofqual – I regret it

I defended Ofqual’s plans to the last hour… I feel let down, but not as much as the thousands of A-level students who were dealt a bitter blow

As those of you who have been tuning in to SSAT’s regular policy updates will know, if I haven’t been thrilled at the details of the standardisation element of this years’ qualifications, I have at least defended it in principle.

This year’s qualifications were always going to be a difficult process for the DfE, Ofqual and the exam boards, and it’s likely that no process would have been perfect. However, the three-part process of reaching calculated grades (centre-assessment, rank order, standardisation) seemed like a sensible one, and one that I advocated for personally. It seemed to ensure that teachers’ knowledge of students was at its core, while maintaining the rigour and validity of qualifications.

When people said certain elements of the proposed standardisation weren’t fair, I broadly agreed – schools with an upwards trajectory for instance, who might be penalised this year by bad results in previous years. Yet, I maintained, no system is perfect, and I was sure there would be systems in place to ensure that individual students weren’t penalised.

Even when the Scotland news broke, I maintained that standardisation was good. Had exam boards just accepted the CAGs it would’ve led to a 12pp rise in grades – an unprecedented amount. Some would argue this doesn’t matter, and that given what this cohort has gone through and what they will face, it’s kind to offer them a bumper year. However, as Laura McInerney tweeted, grade ‘inflation’ (for want of a better word) at the top end might actually decrease social mobility and social justice – when more applicants for jobs and university places have the top grades, then there is a tendency to fall back on culturally-learnt soft skills: “the old-boys club”. So I still think some standardsation, rather than CAGs alone were necessary. I might live to eat those words in the coming days.

Even up to Wednesday morning, when trying to make sense of the government’s poorly announced triple-lock and mock exam grade update, I was still optimistic about what would happen. Most students would get their CAGs, even more within one grade.

However, on Wednesday my inbox started to fill with emails from heads, I was on the phone continuously with heads who were upset, furious, and above all disappointed.

While the headline figures might report positive messages: 60% of CAGs remained unchanged, 90% were within one grade; the reality for some students was quite different. Stories started emerging of students being downgraded from A* to C, from C to U. We’ve all said let’s focus on progression this year, but that calculated downgrade has meant these young people have lost their place at prestigious universities, who have (in some instances) already allocated their place to another applicant.

To add insult to injury, the DfE’s decision to change the appeals process at the 11th hour meant that students cannot even begin that appeals process, and have a fraught weekend and days ahead knowing whether they have grounds for appeals. Many schools may not have done full mocks that will be deemed ‘valid’ let alone have the evidence of validity that Ofqual may require. As students wait to see what the appeals process is, university clearing places are slowly filling up. This is deeply unjust.

It’s also become clear to me, and I thank the leaders who brought this to my attention, that (at least in some qualifications, in some exam boards, in some schools and colleges) the CAGs were completely ignored; and standardisation became a byword for a predetermined algorithm. It’s clear that in some subjects any correlation between CAGs and calculated grades is merely coincidental.

I feel embarrassed and ashamed at how much trust I placed in this system. Had we have known, we would have done far more to argue against it.

But mostly I feel sorry for the young people whose lives this has affected. Last week’s results were a very dark day for our government, one that they should feel bitterly ashamed about, and act to rectify immediately.

Watch: SSAT policy update regarding A-level results with Tom Middlehurst

One thought on “I defended Ofqual – I regret it

  1. Steve Gray on said:

    I’m out of the front line now, so free to be an armchair pontificator. Like you, I thought the principles being introduced were perhaps the least worst option in a very difficult situation. But the way that they have been applied is really poor, and has led to some stupid and dramatically unfair results, albeit in a minority of cases. From where we are now, reverting to CAG might perhaps be the least worst option, although for all the reasons previously stated, this brings its own set of potential unfairness. So what can we do now? From the freedom of the armchair, some thoughts on how all grades might now be remoderated without the need for individual schools to appeal:
    Guarantee that a minimum of 50% of CAG in any one sample would stand, with an absolute minimum of 5 students getting an unmoderated CAG.
    Guarantee that a CAG could not be changed by more than two grades under any circumstances.
    Make the presumption that CAG would either be upheld or changed by one grade in the overwhelming majority of circumstances.
    If there were to be a two-grade change, the burden of proof would be on Ofqual and the exam boards to provide the evidence on why a two grade change was appropriate – the centre could then challenge this evidence if they felt it was invalid.
    Consider, given the exceptional circumstances this year and the potential unreliability of the process, abandoning U grades altogether.

    This might correct the worst of the anomalies, restore the role of the CAG while at the same time accepting that some element of standardisation would still have role to play. And given the avalanche of appeals that are going to come, it would be no less workable than other types of appeal process.

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WATCH: SSAT policy update regarding A-level results with Tom Middlehurst

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