A student reacts as he opens the envelope containing his A-level results at City Academy in Hackney, London, last week. Almost 40 per cent of school-assessed A-level grades in England have been adjusted downwards this year
Almost 40% of school-assessed A-level grades in England have been adjusted downwards this year © Leon Neal/Getty Images

The government is under increasing pressure to sort out a secondary school exam results crisis in England after ministers and Conservative backbench MPs joined calls for a rethink as Wales announced it would not rely on the moderated system to determine grades.

Tory MPs have been told to expect an announcement on Monday afternoon from the education secretary Gavin Williamson and the exams regulator Ofqual.

The expected announcement comes as speculation mounts that the government could mirror Wales, which on Monday afternoon said all A-level and GCSE students would receive the higher grade of either the moderated system or teacher predictions. Scotland had already undertaken the same U-turn for its qualifications.

Northern Ireland announced on Monday morning that it would award all GCSE students in the region their school-predicted results after more than one-third of A-levels were graded down from teacher predictions.

Welsh education minister Kirsty Williams said that because of the “exceptional circumstances”, “it is clear that maintaining confidence in our qualifications whilst being fair to students requires this difficult decision”.

“I am taking this decision now ahead of results being released this week, so that there is time for the necessary work to take place,” she added.

Asked before the Welsh announcement if a U-turn on A-level results was possible, Downing Street said: “We will continue to work hard to come up with the fairest system possible for pupils.”

However, a spokesman insisted “we will not be delaying GCSE results”. 

More than 25 Conservative MPs, including two ministers, have joined calls from teachers and education experts for Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Mr Williamson to resolve the crisis as soon as possible.

Downing Street said Mr Johnson, who is on holiday in Scotland, spoke to Mr Williamson and senior officials on Monday morning. 

Tory MPs demanded more emphasis be placed on teachers’ predictions of pupils’ results. Penny Mordaunt, a Cabinet Office minister, said she was seeking urgent meetings with the department for education and had “made my views on GCSE results known”. 

“This group of young people have lost out so much already, we must ensure that bright, capable students can progress on their next step,” she said on Twitter.

In a statement to his constituents, defence minister Jonny Mercer said “there are too many clear injustices” and “you can imagine my views, which I have made very clear within Gov [government]”.

With exams cancelled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, pupils were awarded grades based on teacher assessments which were moderated by an algorithm. This took into account factors such as a school’s past performance. 

But the system provoked uproar when A-level results were released last week, revealing that almost 40 per cent of school-assessed grades in England had been adjusted downwards, with disadvantaged students apparently more likely to have had their grades dropped. 

Much of the imbalance was down to a feature of the algorithm that meant it gave greater weight to teacher predictions in small class sizes. Independent schools, where small cohorts are common, saw top grades rise 4.7 percentage points, but at larger further education and sixth form colleges they rose only 0.3 per cent. 

Research released on Monday by upReach, a social mobility charity, found that A-level grades at sixth form colleges were 20 per cent more likely to have been downgraded than those at independent schools.

Subjects commonly studied at private schools also saw rampant grade inflation, with A and A* grades in subjects such as Latin and Greek increasing 10.4 per cent. Subjects more popular at colleges, however, barely increased: A and A* grades rose 1 per cent in business studies and 0.2 per cent in psychology.

Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, announced he was writing to Ofqual to initiate legal action over the process.

A study published on Monday by the Sixth Form Colleges Association, which represents the sector, found that grades in 41 subjects in sixth form colleges fell below their average of the past three years, dropping an average of 20 per cent compared with previous years.

The drop meant the algorithm used by Ofqual to determine grades, failed to meet its own “basic principles”, the association said, and amounted to 12,000 lost grades across 38 colleges.

“The priority now is to correct this problem with immediate effect,” said Bill Watkin, the association’s chief executive.

“As each day passes, the strain on students increases and more young people miss out on their chosen university or employment destination.”

Peter Weir, Northern Ireland’s education minister, said he made the decision on GCSEs to “ease anxieties” and because the exams’ results were not based on prior performance data, unlike A-levels — which in Northern Ireland involve modular exams and coursework.

“Standardisation is normally a key feature of awarding qualifications in Northern Ireland and across the UK,” he said. “However, these are exceptional circumstances and in exceptional times truly difficult decisions are made.” 

Michael Wilshaw, a former head of Ofsted, the education inspectorate, told the BBC Today programme on Monday that the government should now accept teacher-predicted grades to end confusion over results.

“This is an exceptional year; we should follow the Northern Ireland example and the Scottish example,” he said.

“Of course we’re all worried that there shouldn’t be rampant grade inflation, but, look, our poor children, the great majority of children have suffered hugely over the last six months, particularly poor youngsters,” Sir Michael said.

Separately, thousands of students who received the International Baccalaureate diploma this year will have their grades increased, after growing criticism forced the global exam body to recalculate how it marked the qualification in the wake of coronavirus.

The IB Organisation, which oversaw the assessments for 170,000 school leavers around the world this year, said on Monday that it was issuing new grades and writing to university admissions officers to inform them about a U-turn in assessments to give greater emphasis to coursework.

Additional reporting by Andrew Jack

Get alerts on Education when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article