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The A-Level results process has been painful, yet this is not the end of the crisis

If 40% of grades were altered, the model was not just producing a few outliers, writes Stephen Hammond MP. | PA Images

4 min read

Many students were nearly robbed of their chance to continue onto further education. A complete revision of Ofqual's leadership may be required by August 2021 to restore confidence.

Two phrases immediately spring to mind when trying to describe the announcement of the A-Level results, namely “a week is a long time in politics“ and “whilst success has many parents, defeat is an orphan”.

The whys and wherefores of who is to blame and what happened are likely to be endlessly debated, but what is not in doubt is the unnecessary distress and disappointment caused to many young people and their families.

The Covid pandemic is making this an exceptional year for everyone, not least for schoolchildren.

As schools shut and online lessons became the norm, the correct decision was taken to cancel examinations this year.

It should also not be forgotten at the outset the educational establishment en masse agreed with the proposition of a standardisation process. There is nothing inherently wrong with a model or an algorithm but, as an economist, one knows there are limits and there is a need for sense testing.

If 40% of grades were altered, the model was not just producing a few outliers. What is difficult to understand is why the quirks of the model, e.g. a small class size bias, were not only not understood earlier but not corrected.

The reversion to Centre Assessed Grades is probably fairer given there are no examinations and there would have been regional differences across the UK.

Whilst there will undoubtedly be some grade inflation as a result, this should be tolerable and explicable in such unusual circumstances. What is disappointing is the painful process in reaching this outcome.

How much has this year’s announcement of results undermined long term confidence in the UK exam system is impossible to determine.

The purpose of education is to give the opportunity and the skills to achieve your ambitions in life. For an increasing number of young people is the chance to continue onto the further education of their choice. Last Thursday seemed to have robbed many of that opportunity, but the reversion to CAGs on Monday has reinstated hope.

However, this is not as simple as it seems.

Whilst the cap on the number of places has been lifted; questions remain for both students and universities. If a student wants to pull out of a place they accepted based on downgraded results when will new revised grades be confirmed to them and to UCAS? Is their first choice university bound to offer them a place? Will it be for this year or next? What are the financial ramifications?  

For universities, there are physical limits to what universities can accommodate and teach, as well as financial costs from the increased cap.

Furthermore, smaller universities are extremely concerned about their financial situation, with many students who have had their grades increased now taking up places at larger universities.

I suspect by the time this is printed some of this will be resolved but I see three long term issues remaining.

How much has this year’s announcement of results undermined long term confidence in the UK exam system is impossible to determine. Clearly, we all hope that next year there will be exams which will undoubtedly help but if remarks or appeals are required the shadow of 2020 will hang.

If transparency of process is an issue inevitably there is also the question of confidence in Ofqual. A complete revision of its leadership may be required by August 2021 for confidence to be restored.

The university sector faces a long-term hangover from this crisis.

As many students defer places to 2021, unless the cap is lifted for next year as well, there will be fewer places to offer the 2021 cohort. Although there will be the certainty of the exam, the offers will have to be higher.

The unfairness created for this year’s students will follow through to next year.

Finally, there has been much discussion that the closure of schools has disadvantaged people from some backgrounds.

Whilst I know from the excellent schools in Wimbledon that there has been an outstanding attempt to teach virtually, there remains questions of access and restrictions to the normal discussion and interaction. For some who require more teacher support, that has just not been possible.

Unless some of these issues are tackled the opportunities that education provides will not be the same for everyone.

The DfE should be looking to embed immediate projects which counter these disadvantages some young people will be feeling the effects of the Covid pandemic for the rest of their lives.

A week is a long time in politics – here’s hoping the next one brings hope and opportunity for our young people.


Stephen Hammond is the Conservative MP for Wimbledon. 

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