Universities seek ‘urgent clarification’ on A-level ‘triple lock’

Last-minute change to policy in England means appeals over calculated grades could be based on mock exam results

August 12, 2020
Three locks
Source: iStock

Universities were seeking “urgent clarification” from the government over the impact of a last-minute change of policy on A-level grading in England that the main student body says could make a “mockery” of the qualifications system.

With less than 48 hours before the results of A levels were to be published, the Department for Education announced that there would be a “triple lock” on grades, with pupils able to either accept their calculated grades, await an appeal from their school based on the results of mock exams, or sit tests this autumn.

The move follows a huge row in Scotland over the way qualifications have been calculated because of the inability to sit tests in the spring as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Tens of thousands of Scottish pupils had grades that had been estimated by teachers downgraded through a standardisation process, only for Scotland’s education secretary, John Swinney, to announce a U-turn and allow grading to be based on teacher estimates alone.

It has led to growing anxiety that there will be similar problems with results in the rest of the UK, with the latest announcement for England designed to reassure those receiving results on 13 August.

But commentators have criticised the decision to use mock exam results as a fallback because they are unofficial tests carried out by individual schools.

Universities admissions could also be thrown in chaos if there are a large number of appeals; the government had indicated that universities should in effect hold open places for students awaiting such appeals.

Larissa Kennedy, president of the National Union of Students, said the use of mock results “risks making a mockery of the whole system, given the lack of a standard approach” to such tests.

“This is a botched attempt at a solution which does not fix the problem,” she said, calling on England to follow Scotland and rely on grades estimated by teachers alone.

Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK, said students should not panic after receiving their grades because universities would be “as flexible as they can in these unusual circumstances”. Before the latest announcement, the admissions service Ucas was also emphasising that “near-miss” candidates would find that institutions were being “super-flexible” given the circumstances.

However, Professor Buckingham also said that UUK was urgently seeking more information from the government about what the latest announcement would mean for the admissions process.

“This last-minute policy change presents a number of challenges for universities, and we are seeking urgent clarification from the Department for Education on a range of issues, including the likely scale and timing of appeals,” she said.

Rachel Hewitt, director of policy and advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute, said the decision on mock exams might not make a huge difference because pupils in England had already been told that their schools could appeal results or that they could sit exams in the autumn.

But it did “add another layer of complexity for universities” and could lead to more appeals, “leaving universities to consider how to manage their places between those who achieve the grades, clearing and those seeking to appeal”.

“I do not envy those working in admissions offices who will have a very challenging set of circumstances to juggle in the next few days and weeks,” Ms Hewitt said.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (4)

If everyone had been given an A* someone would have complained. So far I haven't heard an alternative that can't be shot down by someone else with a vested interest. I don't have a vested interest or strong political position but can't clear the smell of falsely indignant political motives out of my nostrils...
teachers have overestimated predicted grades for years - around 40% over-predicted every year - so why should we trust their judgement this time?
And how many grades were under-predicted? If it's the same 40%, then maybe teachers' predictions are correct on average.
The issue is not the overall outcome, the issue is where people fall in the middle when overlaying average performance on rank order. variations and inflation was inevitable. Education is ultimately an individual experience and many students have experienced dreadful unfairness, despite the macro picture appearing fair. Re teacher predictions, in the absence of real clarity and training pre-grade submission. This is not an issue of poor judgment on the part of teachers, it is the absence of a clear and clearly communicated rubric for predictions. With a little forethought this could have been avoided. It also appears the Gavin Williamson and his Scottish and Welsh counterparts have yet to speak to each other. Blame is pointless, solutions are important, but these need to be universal to be fair. Scotland’s approach has caused grade inflation, undoubtedly, and exaggerated the challenges faced by English pupils. But it has perhaps remedied the unfairness In Scotland. Which is the bigger issue for you is the question to be answered. For me, a teacher of 20+ years, I would rather give the benefit of the doubt and allow teacher grades to stand this year. The triple lock farce makes things worse not better, again no clarity or communication from Ofqual etc. Gavin Williamson has failed this test spectacularly and I am not even sure he understands the maths of averages to discuss this properly.

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