Uncertainty mounts as A-level appeals guidance withdrawn

Labour calls on prime minister to take ‘personal responsibility’ for fixing assessment crisis

August 17, 2020

UK universities faced mounting uncertainty over admissions for the coming year as A-level appeals guidance was issued by the English exams regulator and then swiftly withdrawn.

Labour called on Boris Johnson to take “personal responsibility” for fixing the assessment crisis, with just weeks to go before freshers were due to start arriving on campuses.

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge have warned that students who receive confirmation of a successful appeal after the institutions reach capacity will have to defer entry to October 2021.

The problem began when the publication of A-level results in England on 13 August brought confirmation that more than a quarter of a million results had been downgraded from teacher estimates as part of a standardisation process introduced to calculate grades after exams were cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Tens of thousands more applicants, and the universities they applied to, face uncertainty after missing required grades but potentially being able to go through an appeals process based on mock exam results, a change in policy announced by the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, less than 48 hours before results were released.

On 15 August, the guidance for appeals was published by Ofqual, stating that successful appeals would result in students being given either a teacher-assessed grade or their mock exam grade, whichever was lower.

But later the same day, the guidance was removed from Ofqual’s website and the regulator issued a statement in which it said: “This policy is being reviewed by the Ofqual board and further information will be published in due course.”

The Daily Telegraph reported that senior figures in Ofqual wanted to abandon the grades awarded using the standardisation algorithm and to rely on teacher-assessed marks instead.

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said “no student should be worse off because of government failure” and backed use of teacher-assessed marks for grading.

“Gavin Williamson’s handling of this year’s exam results has been a complete and utter fiasco. We have had weeks of chaos, confusion and incompetence,” Ms Rayner said.

“And yet, Boris Johnson has been nowhere to be seen. He has been watching from the sidelines while a generation of young people are being robbed of their future.

“We cannot have another week like this. The prime minister must now take personal responsibility for this crisis by addressing the country in the next 24 hours to explain precisely how he will end this historic injustice.”

There are concerns that students from poorer backgrounds could be crowded out from the UK’s most selective universities because the Ofqual algorithm appears to have favoured students from independent schools.

A Department for Education spokesman said: “Hundreds of thousands of students have received a calculated grade that will enable them to progress to the next stage of their education or into work.

“We have been clear that we want to build as much fairness into the appeals process as possible to help young people in the most difficult cases and have been working with Ofqual to achieve that.

“Ofqual continues to consider how to best deliver the appeals process to give schools and pupils the clarity they need.”

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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