Labour seeks urgent assurances for pupils facing predicted exam results in England

Kate Green has called for urgent assurances for pupils, parents and teachers ahead of predicted exam results in England and asked the government to set out how it will ensure grade calculations do “not exacerbate existing inequalities”.

In a letter to Gavin Williamson today, the Shadow Education Secretary highlighted that, as Ofqual has said, the standardisation of grades – in place of exams cancelled during the pandemic – will “draw on the historical outcomes of a centre”.

Urging the Education Secretary for clarification on the methodology, Green warned of a “danger that inequality will be baked into the system, as students will be judged on their schools’ prior attainment and not on individual merit”.

Her call for reassurance comes after analysis of the results issued in Scotland on Tuesday. Nearly a quarter of all recommended results for school pupils were downgraded, with thousands receiving a worse grade than expected.

Green wrote that the statistical method applied by the Scottish Qualification Authority to moderate the results had “shown a reduction of 15.2% in the most deprived communities, compared to just 6.9% in the most affluent areas”.

The Shadow Education Secretary asked that Williamson set out what support those downgraded in the assessment will be given by the government to ensure that there is a “fair and accessible process of appeals”.

Commenting on the SQA results, Green said: “Yesterday’s disastrous handling of Higher results in Scotland shows what can go wrong when computer algorithms drive students’ grades, and politicians wash their hands of responsibility.

“With A-level results just over a week away, and GCSE results due the week after, it’s imperative the government acts now to reassure worried students, teachers and parents.

“Young people deserve to have their hard work assessed on merit, but the system risks baking in inequality and doing most harm to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, those from ethnic minority groups and those with special educational needs and disabilities.

“Ministers must urgently set out how they’ll ensure the results next week will not exacerbate existing inequalities, and what extra support they’ll give to students who feel they’ve been unfairly graded to navigate the appeals process.”

Scotland saw better overall grades than last year, with 81.1% of pupils getting an A to C grade for National 5s compared with 78.2% in 2019. The Higher pass rate rose from 74.8% to 78.9% and Advanced Higher increased from 79.4% to 84.9%.

But the results would have been higher had they been based on the estimation given by teachers before moderation by the SQA, which it said ensured “consistency across schools and colleges, and with results from previous years”.

Teachers were required to use students’ work and their knowledge of the pupil to estimate the grade they would have achieved under normal circumstances. Subjects were divided into bands, and students were placed in those bands before being ranked.

The SQA developed a maximum and minimum pass rate for each course at every school based on a four-year average, with some flexibility to provide for year-on-year changes. It then used the rankings to moderate results if awarded outside the expected range.

A-Level results day in England is just over a week away, while GCSE grades will be given the week after. Exams were cancelled in March this year when the government ordered schools to close amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Below is the full text of the letter sent to Gavin Williamson by Kate Green.

Dear Gavin,

I am writing to you to seek urgent assurances ahead of upcoming results days in England over the next two weeks that the process will treat students fairly. Yesterday’s Higher results in Scotland, which saw nearly a quarter of all the recommended results for school pupils this year downgraded by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, show all too clearly the challenges of a teacher assessment and standardisation approach. The experience in Scotland is now impacting on teacher and student confidence ahead of next week’s A level results, and GCSE results the following week. I hope you will act to address this as a matter of urgency.

The first issue of concern is the potentially disproportionate event impact on different demographics. Analysis of the comparison between teacher estimates and the statistical moderation used to calculate the Scottish results has shown a reduction of 15.2% in the most deprived communities, compared to just 6.9% in the most affluent areas – entrenching inequality for those from the poorest backgrounds and areas.

All students deserve to receive grades on their own merit and not a computer algorithm. It is therefore vital that students, teachers and parents understand the way in which results will primarily be determined, and how a balance is to be achieved between performance at centre level and consideration of students’ individual performance.

If the eventual results are determined primarily at centre level, there is a significant danger that inequality will be baked into the system, as students will be judged on their schools’ prior attainment and not on individual merit. This was confirmed last month by Ofqual who said “standardisation will draw on the historical outcomes of a centre”. So what protections are the government putting in place to ensure the attainment gap doesn’t continue to grow this year? What steps will be taken to address unequal outcomes for students from Black and Ethnic Minority backgrounds, those on free school meals and other groups who are likely to be disadvantaged by this methodology?

The centre level standardisation model negatively impacts on improving schools. The trajectory of a school’s recent performance will not be taken account, but this will significantly penalise fast-improving schools – so what measures are you implementing to ensure that their turnaround is recognised?

Second, there remain serious concerns about the appeals process. Should large numbers of results be downgraded or assessed at a level lower than a student was predicted due to the standardisation model, what support will they be given for a fair and accessible process of appeals? Students will be concerned and upset should they receive results lower than they are expecting and will need access to expert advice to navigate this process. They will need to be able to identify process failures by the centres, and will particularly struggle to evidence bias. It is of concern that centres have not been required to make a specific equalities statement, and that they have received only a ‘reminder’ of their duties under equalities law, and ‘suggestions’ about how they might use data from previous years to indicate any systematic tendency to under or over predict likely performance that is associated with students’ particular protected characteristics.

Could you therefore confirm what resources government will make to support students who wish to access the appeals process? And what reassurance can you give to students, schools and families that the process will be transparent and address inherent bias in the system, particularly for Black and Minority Ethnic students, but also those on free school meals, looked after children, and those with SEND?

We know that young people have gone through considerable challenges over the past few months and their education has been severely disrupted. This year’s system of assessment risks creating winners and losers, and some children in schools that have been improving are those who could lose out the most. To ensure that no young person’s life chances are further impacted by coronavirus, should providers of post-16 and post-18 education be flexible when making offers and decisions affecting these young people, so they do not lose out due to factors far beyond their control?

Nicola Sturgeon has failed a generation of young Scots by ensuring that the inequality and attainment gap has been further entrenched through her failure to act on the injustice of the moderation system. We cannot allow that to happen here in England next week.

I therefore seek your urgent reassurance that you and your government will not allow similar results to occur in England and that students and their families can be confident of getting the results their time and hard work deserve.

Yours sincerely,

Kate Green MP
Shadow Education Secretary

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