As soon as John Swinney stood up to make his apology in Holyrood, we knew that an intervention from DfE was on the cards.
Though from what we know of the results, calculated A levels in England do not show the documented social mobility issues seen in Scotland, a campaign has been gathering steam. Unhelpful headlines about the difference between the submitted predicted grades and their letters students would see on Thursday will have made Ministers take note – even if the essence of what was planned was probably the fairest system in this very worst of all years.
Williamson could have jumped one of three ways – doubled down on the integrity of Ofquals work, gone – as in Scotland – with the considered judgement of teachers, or delayed an already unlikely looking start of term in the hope students could sit exams. He tried to do all three, but fell between three stools. Students will be able to choose their preferred result from the calculated grade or appeal with reference to their “mock” exam, or resit – as previously flagged – in the autumn.
When is an exam not an exam?
A familiar-sounding institution, “mock” A level exams are a single term for a number of practices. In usual parlance it means a go through a largely unseen past paper – difficult this year, as any student this year would surely have read the only past paper available for the new version of A levels. Some schools don’t do mocks at all – thinking they add stress and take up time that could be used in actually learning stuff or revising what you have learned.
Some schools did plan “mocks” for this year – but had to cancel them due to a pandemic that happened to be going on. Some schools will have done “mocks” last summer – based on only one year of A level study (similar to the old AS levels, which are starting to look useful again…). Some schools do “mocks” under full exam conditions, others as a familiarisation exercises with little expectation that students will perform to their full potential.
All mock exams have grades set by the school, and not nationally moderated. An A in one school in a “mock” has little relation to results in the school down the road, and less to what that student would have got in an external exam. This is a lesson known so well that we don’t even use “mock” results in university applications, we use teacher predicted grades.
What do DfE mean by “mocks”? At the time of writing – 36 hours before results day – we don’t know. The idea was briefed to some (but not all) newspapers at 10.30pm on Tuesday night. Hopefully this will emerge before students have to make these choices.
The calculated results already sit on servers, shared with universities to prepare for clearing. Conditional offer communications will, unless something very strange happens, be based on these statistically adjusted grades. Students who prefer their mock grades will need to have these somehow validated – with the involvement of their school – and communicated to universities very quickly in order to apply based on them.
Clearing was already expected to be busy – now more calls and messages querying offers based on unvalidated mock grades will be added. Universities will not know how 2020 grades compare to previous years – there is simply no way of knowing until the dust settles what 2020 grades will be. Is a 2020 B a sign that an applicant has enough core knowledge to study a particular course? It’s anyone’s guess.
Scotland at least had the appeal to authority in that grades allocated by teachers are set by people who understand the student best. The mock would have been a factor in the calculation of these grades, but not the only one. Classroom performance, written work, lab notebooks, and performances or portfolios would also have played a part.
Knowing when to hold
Even before this last minute change, 2020 was the most stressful A level season in recent history. Results day, at least, offered an end to a summer of uncertainty, and the first sign that lives on pause since March could move forward. Move forward, it has to be said, into an autumn of uncertainty and a likely second wave. But this is 2020 and we take what little joy we can find.
Should a student stick or twist? Or leave the game? We don’t yet know whether universities will treat grades from mocks differently from calculated grades (this during the chaos of clearing, before appeals are resolved), or whether the differences between these grades will be visible to the observer. The 2020 results will always carry an air of suspicion – and students entering university this year need to know that their work, and their worth, is accurately represented throughout their life.
The other options involve students delaying their university career. Sitting an exam in autumn means a course starting in January at the earliest. Maybe the pandemic will be receding at that point, maybe on campus learning would be possible. But not all courses can or will start in January – and there is a fair suggestion, given the state of sector finances, that some will not start at all.
By folding before results day, DfE and Williamson betray a lack of confidence in their own decisions earlier this year. Surely with a bit more pushing, from NUS and others, a move to teacher grades could happen. Or – at this stage – results allocated according to star sign, which would make about as much sense as what is on offer.
This decision isn’t even good politics. It upsets everyone – the teachers who feel entirely professionally able to predict grades, the administrators and policy teams looking to keep it clear that an A at A level is an A at A levels, the students who just want their learning reflected fairly, the universities who want some guidance as to who they should be admitting.