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Making a mockery of results day

36 hours before A level results day saw a dramatic DfE policy shift. David Kernohan holds his head in his hands and weeps.
This article is more than 3 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

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.

Clearing out?

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.

16 responses to “Making a mockery of results day

  1. A small thing.

    The big thing is the absolute disgrace of how this has been handled and the stress on applicants (and their families). This was all planned in April/May and the only variable that’s changed since Ofqual signed off the grades and these were sent into universities – is the reaction in Scotland.

    The small thing. Surely this is a change to the appeal process. Centres can now send in mock grades and the exam boards can use that as the basis of changing the grade. But applicants will know that the appeal will be granted so they can tell a university that they have an awarded B (say) but a mock grade A so can they have a place. The university waits (?) for the appeal & confirms the place.
    As DfE said that students who successfully appeal are outside the student number cap, isn’t that not shredded? Every centre will submit an appeal for every student with a higher mock grade that the one the exam board has recorded – A level grades are for life (plus there’s performance measures & league tables out there) so even students accepted normally tomorrow could come outside the SNC.

  2. The results were shared on Friday, and the universities have confirmed the status of applicants and updated UCAS with those decisions. They will be released on Thursday at 8 am.

    There is now no time to change those decisions, since it is still a substantially manual process, even if we had the changed results to work with.

    If the results do change after appeal, or change wholesale, that will mean chaos in university admissions, for weeks to come. We can’t see the teacher predictions, so we’ll get applicants calling, telling us their teacher predicted Bs, but they got C’s, and we’ll have no way of verifying that. For many exam boards, we can’t see component grades, or anything but a single figure. We have nothing to go on except the now completely unreliable “results”.

    Clearing was always going to be busy this year, but this just makes it so much worse.

  3. The ripples of this decision will hardly create the stability that’s needed at this time and bodes very badly for what awaits with the autumn series and more worryingly, precedence for 2021!

      1. Here’s an update from Ofqual. More details “sometime next week”.


  4. What a complete shambles. The only way to deal with this is to use the CAG set by the teachers, with an appeal system for any student who believes they have been subject to individual bias. At no point in this painful, protracted and frankly non-sensical system has the mental wellbeing of the student been considered-let alone that of the families trying to support them. In our family, having got ourselves to a comfortable place of acceptance regarding the allocation of grades and a positive mindset for moving forwards I am now dreading the discussions with my son on this latest madness. The lack of clarity is spectacular. Mocks vary even between teachers in the same school delivering the same subject; One set of students may not have completed the same content as another at the time that mocks were taken. What happens to those students who didn’t take ‘mocks’ because their A-Level has a high portfolio component (eg Photography)? Can the mark for the portfolio count? I am despairing for my son and his future. Please, sort this madness out.

  5. Using the UCAS predicted grades, made pre-crisis as normal, with known properties and lots of additional encoded information in the profile and course choice was the best solution for university entry without exams in April.

    They remain the best information point for admissions this year for main scheme applicants. Though now it would have to be rough-and-ready rather than through the types of models referenced in the article.

    Again though the real problem now isn’t grades. It is giving universities the recruitment headroom to resolve problems by relaxing or scrapping the number controls. Universities are perfectly able to resolve this crisis, they just need Government to release them from the controls.

  6. It’s not just the SNC, is it? What about actual capacity? Sounds like a daft question in this cycle of all cycles but there will still be some popular courses, especially in STEM, where lab capacity leads to a hard cap on numbers. Of course not every course at every Uni will have this challenge but there must be some, especially with social distancing measures, and if the possible reduction in international students either doesn’t happen, or doesn’t happen enough, then what happens?

    Universities may have been accepting near miss candidates all week, exercising that flexibility and undertaking that they were urged to do, only to find that the candidates they’ve rejected will appeal and may end up being contractually entitled to a place after all. Who gets bumped? The appellant, or the near miss accept told tomorrow that they’ve got a place? Or do they all get told “bad luck, you can come, but you’re not going to get much of an experience because we’ve overshot”.

  7. What about the poor IB students? They are still using the algorithm or will admission tutors also give them the chance to pitch on the basis on predicted/mock results?

  8. What’s the position with IB students that have been waiting to see what happens with A Levels? Are admission tutor’s looking at their mocks/predicted grades?

  9. You are absolutely right about the physical capacity. But the physical capacity limit will be higher, sometimes much higher, than the SNC limit. And international enrollment is likely to be down – both UG and PG – though you are right it hard to know by how much. Nothing can be done about the capacity limit. But the SNC can be removed instantly if treasury provide the funds.

  10. Each person should have been allocated a percentage grade by their teachers reflecting A, B, C, D, E bands then once these were deemed credible the results aggregated and then deflated uniformly on a national basis and a subject basis to bring them into line with last years results allowing for a 5% improvement to take account of the pandemic. It is not rocket science but this incompetent government cannot be expected to do anyhthing right !

  11. Isn’t international enrolment likely to be up? UCAS is only three-quarters of the story, but UCAS June 30 deadline – Applicants by country of provider by domicile for Not EU (Eng,Sco,Wales, NI) 2019 111,320 2020 123,870

  12. Intl applicants and intl enrolments are two different things. They still need to make a payment, apply for a visa, book a flight, be confident that the UK is COVID safe, and then travel to enrol.

  13. With the lower numbers of students this year…Allowing universities to accept as many as they want will ensure the death of those universities that generally pick up students through clearing. In the long run, this will reduce choice and limit access to future students, as well as leading to more redundancies in a time when the last thing that is needed is more job losses.

  14. Predicted grades have been used for decades by schools and by exam boards. there is nothing new in grades beig awrded on the basis of prediced grades. They were used by the exam board i marked for when scripts went missing in the post (quite often as it happens) or when teachers recorded some kids over already recorded oral exams (also quite often !).
    So there is no need to be alarmed by this. It is also the case, certainly at the school where i taught, that the use of predicted grades gave rise to no more appeals than ‘real’ exam results.
    The use of mock exam grades is a whole different kettle of fish – no way would i go there!

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