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England’s schools get powers to appeal GCSE/A-level results

With just a week to go before results day, schools in England were last night given fresh powers to appeal against poor grades.

Exam watchdog Ofqual was spurred into action by the outcry over Tuesday’s Scottish Highers, nearly a quarter of which were downgraded by education chiefs.

This year’s A-level and GCSE exams were cancelled due to the coronavirus crisis, so teenagers are to be awarded marks based on their teachers’ assessments.

The regulator now admits that ‘high ability’ students at poor schools could get worse-than-deserved results. This is because exam boards will check whether their grades are out of step with their school’s historic performance.

But rather than rectify the situation before marks are sent out, Ofqual says it will be up to schools to mount an appeal.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson welcomed the watchdog’s decision last night.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, said: ‘It is a welcome about-turn by Ofqual in attempting to reduce the unfairness in awarding these grades.

‘It would have been better if they had foreseen it at the outset.

‘What it does once and for all is to show we really do need exams at GCSE and A-level… and it is very difficult to take what the teachers are saying and moderate it so it is fair to all pupils.

‘You would have thought that the regulator, with all the experts it can call upon, would have thought of some of these things and avoided an about-turn at such a late date.’

Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at Exeter University, added: ‘It will be a national scandal if poorer pupils are disproportionately penalised by the system of calculated grades.

‘It would be grossly unfair on poorer students if they are downgraded through no fault of their own – particularly if that damages their prospects of getting jobs or gaining places at universities.’

A-level results day is next Thursday, while GCSE results come out a week later. Under the new Ofqual rules, schools can now appeal if ‘the grades of unusually high or low ability students have been affected by the model because they fall outside the pattern of results in that centre in recent years’.

Individual pupils will not be allowed to challenge grades themselves, so schools and colleges will need to appeal on their behalf.

In cases where students suspect racism or bias lies behind their teachers’ decision-making, their only option is raise a complaint rather than access the appeals procedure. 

Responding to the regulator’s announcement, Mr Williamson said: ‘It is vital that students with exceptional circumstances are not held back by the way grades have been calculated – including those who are highly talented in schools that have not in the past had strong results, or where schools have undergone significant changes such as a new leadership team.’

Tens of thousands have signed a petition calling for all students in Scotland to be re-evaluated.

According to the Scottish Qualification Authority’s own analysis, the most deprived pupils had their marks reduced by 15.2 per cent, whereas the wealthiest had reductions of only 6.9 per cent.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon even admitted yesterday she would probably have protested if her grades had been downgraded while she was at school.

Ofqual denied that its move on appeals was in response to the situation in Scotland – even though the meetings which led to the changes took place on the day Scottish results were released.

In a statement, it said: ‘Students can appeal, through their school or college, if they believe an error has been made or that something has gone wrong in their case.

‘If they are concerned that bias or discrimination has affected their results they can make a complaint. 

‘Centres will also be able to appeal if they can show evidence an error has occurred – including where they can show students’ grades are lower than expected because previous cohorts are not sufficiently representative of this year’s students.’

Meanwhile, the boss of the National Education Union has urged schools to ignore ‘threatening noises’ from government and refuse to reopen if they feel is it unsafe. 

Dr Mary Bousted told councillors in an online meeting that current guidance was ‘unworkable’ and schools should come up with their own plans.

‘The latest iteration of government guidance is so unworkable that you can’t trust it. Local authorities and schools should take the confidence to do what they can do and that will mean for many schools that they cannot have all children fully back in September’, she said.

‘Now, the Government’s making threatening noises about that. But in the end, they won’t be able to carry out their threats.’ She said some schools might find it ‘simply impossible’ to operate safely and therefore could not have ‘all children back’, The Daily Telegraph reported.

Dr Bousted’s Left-wing union has been repeatedly accused of using the Covid crisis as an excuse to bash the Tories. 

A spokesman said: ‘The NEU echoes the calls from the scientific community for a robust test, track, and trace to be in place in schools and colleges and for there to be a plan B in case of any regional or national spikes to ensure all students remain connected to learning.’    

Schools and colleges can appeal if they were expecting results this year to ‘show a very different pattern of grades’ to results in previous years because of the ability profile of students this year.

If a school has had a ‘significant change in leadership or governance’ – and it can provide evidence that its previous grades are ‘not a reliable indicator’ of this year’s results – it will also be allowed to challenge results.

If a single-sex school has changed to co-educational – or a school has experienced a ‘monumental event’ such as flooding or fire which meant it had to move and it affected previous exam results – then they can appeal grades.

Schools and colleges can appeal to the exam board if it believes it made an error when submitting a grade or if it believes an exam board made a mistake.

Pupils can ask their school or college to check whether it made an administrative error when submitting their grade – and they can ask them to submit an appeal to the exam board if it did. 

Ofqual has advised students to complain to their college or school in the first place about potential malpractice. If their concerns are not addressed, pupils can formally complain to the exam board.

Students in England who are unhappy with their grades will also have the opportunity to take A-level exams in October and GCSE exams in November.  

Not allowing pupils the right to appeal GCSE or A-Level exam grades they think are unfair had earlier been linked to imposing a ‘life sentence’. 

There are concerns that results day next week could be chaotic as thousands of teenagers may receive ‘unfair’ marks. 

Dr Martin Stephen, the former High Master of St Paul’s Boys’ School told The Daily Telegraph the system was equivalent to ‘imposing a life sentence, with no right of appeal’.

The new guidance comes after outrage in Scotland where the grade moderation process reduced the pass rate of the poorest Higher pupils by more than twice that of the richest. 

The Scottish Qualifications Authority downgraded the students’ marks for the exams that were not sat, changing a massive 93.1 per cent of all the moderated scores.

Chief Examining Officer Fiona Robertson said if the SQA had not stepped in exam pass rates would have risen at every level and would have been the highest on record. 

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