Exams U-turn as pupils win reprieve over A-level and GCSE grade appeals

Camilla Turner
·5-min read
Schools will now be allowed to appeal against results in 'exceptional' cases if they believe students are incorrectly marked down by the statistical modelling used to calculate grades - David Jones/PA
Schools will now be allowed to appeal against results in 'exceptional' cases if they believe students are incorrectly marked down by the statistical modelling used to calculate grades - David Jones/PA

Pupils will be allowed to challenge "unfair" A-level and GCSE grades after the exam regulator changed its stance in the face of a backlash from headteachers.

Schools will now be allowed to appeal against results in "exceptional" cases if they believe students are incorrectly marked down by the statistical modelling being used to calculate the grades.   

The decision comes in the wake of the Scottish results fiasco, where close to 125,000 predicted grades were downgraded by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).

On Wednesday, The Telegraph revealed that headteachers in England were concerned that pupils faced being handed a "life sentence" unless they were allowed to appeal over their grades. They warned that "all hell would break loose" on A-level results day next week unless appeals were allowed.

Now the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual), the exam regulator, has softened its stance.

Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, said he welcomed the changes to the appeals system, adding that no pupil should have their future frustrated by receiving unfair grades.

"It is vital that students with exceptional circumstances are not held back by the way grades have been calculated – including those who are highly talented in schools that have not in the past had strong results, or where schools have undergone significant changes such as a new leadership team," he said.

Gavin Williamson said no pupil should have their future frustrated by receiving unfair grades -  Peter Summers/Getty Images Europe
Gavin Williamson said no pupil should have their future frustrated by receiving unfair grades - Peter Summers/Getty Images Europe

Next Thursday, teenagers across the country will receive grades that have been calculated using the statistical model after the coronavirus crisis interrupted the exam season. The model takes into account various factors including pupils' past performance and the last three years of a school's grades in the same subjects.  

It was feared that pupils in England would be condemned by the past performance of their school rather than judged on their own merits. Government officials were particularly concerned about the plight of pupils at schools in deprived communities, which had been deemed as failing but are being turned around under new leadership.  

Headteachers accused Ofqual of giving pupils a "life sentence" by refusing to allow them to appeal, other than on narrow technical grounds, but on Thursday the exam watchdog announced that it would broaden the grounds on which schools can appeal against results.

They can now do so if they can provide evidence to show that the past three years' results are "not sufficiently representative" of this year's students. This could be because a school has undergone a change in leadership and is on course for a rapid improvement in results, or because the current year group of pupils are "unusually" academic compared to the school's previous intakes.

Such challenges, which would have to cite "extraordinary" or "momentous" incidents that may have affected students' grades, will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, Ofqual said. The watchdog also confirmed that it would allow appeals from students who believe they were the victims of discrimination or bias.

In a series of documents published on Thursday, it admitted the statistical model it has drawn up to predict students' grades can, in certain circumstances, have a "narrowing effect" and "might affect the reliability of results".

"We have amended the guidance to recognise that a centre might have evidence of improved exam results which are clearly associated with an event and might argue that results before that event are the wrong data," the document said.

The decision to amend the appeals process came amid a growing furore over exam results in Scotland, where the system was condemned as "fundamentally unfair". The formula used to moderate the grades, published on Tuesday, came under scrutiny after it emerged that the school a pupil attended played a major role in determining whether or not a grade was lowered.

A school pupil in Scotland receives a text message detailing her exam results - Andy Buchanan/AFP
A school pupil in Scotland receives a text message detailing her exam results - Andy Buchanan/AFP

Labour's shadow education secretary, Kate Green, wrote to the Government to demand answers over A-levels and GCSEs following the "disastrous" handling of the Scottish results.

On Thursday, headteachers welcomed the changes to the English appeals system. 

Leora Cruddas, the chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts, which represents academies, said: "This goes some way towards dealing with the situation of rapidly improving schools, so we think it is a good thing that Ofqual has recognised that there are circumstances where historic data is an inaccurate picture."

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the move addressed some concerns voiced by schools, but added: "However, these grounds allow only for exceptional circumstances which can be clearly evidenced, and it is likely that some schools will still be concerned that their results will be unfairly pegged by historical performance, and that this may disadvantage students this year."

Mr Barton urged schools and universities to show a "spirit of generosity" to students who may have missed out on the marks they deserve by giving them the benefit of the doubt over their offers.

A spokesman for the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference (HMC), which represents the country's most prestigious schools including Eton, Harrow and Winchester, said the move "suggests they have listened to heads".

But the organisation urged the watchdog to give clearer instructions to schools about the exact ground on which they can appeal.

  • Are you concerned about A-level results? Do you expect the new system to provide fair results? Share your thoughts on A-level exams being interrupted in the comments section below