This GCSE results day, CEO Susannah Hardyman explores how Ofqual’s exam grading system reproduced the long-standing disadvantage that Action Tutoring exists to tackle, and looks at the consequences of the government’s grading U-turn for this and next year’s school leavers.
Unlike the A Level ‘fiasco’, as it is being widely termed in the media, this GCSE results day we know what’s coming – the government’s U-turn on Monday awarded centre assessment grades (CAGs) to pupils for both A Levels and GCSEs following outcries of injustice at the A Level grading system used.
Initially, instead of using CAGs, the government planned to use an algorithm developed by Ofqual for this year’s results. While overall this produced A Level results that looked broadly in line with last year’s, it didn’t take long to reveal that some big injustices lay under the surface. 40% of grades had been downgraded from the original CAGs submitted by schools and colleges, infuriating pupils and teachers, and when studied more closely it emerged that:
- Only 10% of private school grades were downgraded, versus 25% of those at state schools.
- Further Education (FE) colleges overall had their worst set of results over a three year average.
Why did this happen? The algorithm favoured smaller class sizes, where there were fewer pupils for teachers to rank, and also subjects with fewer entries like Classics. Both factors favoured the private school set-up and disadvantaged significantly larger colleges.
Further outcry ensued when it transpired there was no clear plan for an appeals process, with a lack of clarity on A Level results day on whether appeals would have to be paid for by schools and pupils (which would put those who are better-off financially at an advantage). Ofqual initially published appeals guidance on its website on Saturday, only to rapidly take it down again a few hours later.
This blog from our friends at the The Access Project – a charity that works to support young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to get into top universities – described the challenges faced by pupils that had not been given the grades they’d hoped for as they battled through the clearing process. These students suddenly found themselves in the midst of disappointment, having to advocate for themselves and argue their case to admissions tutors, a skill that many would not be equipped with if they didn’t have strong support from teachers and families.
The U-turn on Monday to award CAGs at GCSE and A Level has resolved some problems. I believe that given the circumstances and concerns that had emerged, it was the right thing to do. However, there is no doubt that other issues have been created, as highlighted brilliantly in this piece by Maria Neophytou, Interim CEO at Impetus, one of Action Tutoring’s largest funders. Evidence shows that disadvantaged pupils are more likely to have grades under-predicted by their teachers, so CAGs still can’t guarantee a fair result – a concern flagged very early in this process and a key one for Action Tutoring. Universities now face a huge challenge as more pupils than ever receive the grades they need to secure places, creating a huge pressure on admissions. Deferring may be the answer for some, but it will not be straightforward filling their year out in the middle of a recession. This also creates more pressure on places next year.
Inequality in education in the UK is not a new problem. That is exactly why Action Tutoring has existed since 2012, to tackle the attainment gap, with successful results. Lockdown has exacerbated these inequalities whilst also bringing them to the public’s attention. But, as Chair of the House of Commons Education Committee, Rob Halfon MP, said this week: “This is a long-term problem which was hiding in plain sight in GCSE results before this year’s extraordinary events. It requires a long-term, targeted solution to tackle the persistent disadvantage.”
Ultimately all of this matters because pupils’ lives and futures are at stake. Grades make a difference to where you can study, the course you can take, the jobs you might be considered for. It was a favourite mantra of my headteacher at secondary school, emphasised at the start of every September while informing the whole school assembly on that summer’s performance, “Grades open doors,” – they may not be the only thing that gets you through the door, but they give you a fighting chance of getting it open. When I was dropped off at university by my parents, feeling totally overwhelmed and unbelievably lucky to have been offered a place at Cambridge, the college had this beautiful huge door that opened up to the grounds. My mum looked at it and said, “See – Mrs Freeman was right. Grades opened doors.” Yet, last Thursday, it must have felt to many pupils that Gavin Williamson was slamming the door firmly shut.
It’s precisely because grades open doors that GCSE results day matters so much. For pupils to progress into further education, employment or training, they need at least to meet national standards in English and maths. Action Tutoring focuses relentlessly on those at risk of just missing out on these pass grades, because without them, prising those doors to opportunity open becomes much harder. It would have been a travesty if GCSE pupils had faced the same results day as those picking up their A Levels last week, with all manner of longer term consequences for disadvantaged pupils who were more likely to be downgraded by the algorithm.
With the government having made the decision to trust teacher judgment (and now looking set to rely on school based assessment for BTECs too, albeit with a very last minute change affecting half a million pupils), given the incredible circumstances we find ourselves in this year I would much rather risk grades being over-inflated than underestimated, with everything pupils have already been through. For anyone moving from Year 11 to the next stage in their life, getting back into learning again since school closures in March will be an enormous challenge and the job market will not be favourable for young people for a long while to come. Giving them the benefit of the doubt with their grades would seem to be the least we can do to help them with their next step, rather than risking giving them grades that under score them.
Whilst at Action Tutoring we had to say an abrupt goodbye to our Year 11 cohort, we are looking forward to getting back to what we love doing in September: running tutoring programmes, building pupils’ confidence and seeing their satisfaction as they finally grasp concepts they’d struggled with. With the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) on the horizon, the unprecedented need for catch-up support and now the option to run our programmes online, we know it’s going to be busier than ever. We are calling for the National Tutoring Programme to be extended beyond one year. Pupils need and deserve sustained support and the NTP could have the real potential in the long run not just to help pupils catch up from lost learning from covid-19, but to work to close the attainment gap in the UK further. However, we can’t deliver on our mission without the hundreds of volunteers that sign up to tutor with us every year. Would you or someone you know consider being one of them, or spreading the word to others? You really can help to open those doors for pupils, at a time when it’s never been more needed.
Susannah Hardyman, CEO.