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TWO: What of fairness and equality?

Considerable fears remain in many quarters that fairness and equality will elude the government and Ofqual. The current system appears to be trying to chase ‘ghosts’ that cannot be caught or assessed using current methods. A new way to assess students will be needed that gathers the attributes of students in the context of their situation. Of course, ensuring equal access to education on a level playing field would be a better way to give all of them same chance. 

There is little doubt that the Centre Assessment Grade (CAG) methodology used by Ofqual this summer was crudely designed to ensure as little grade inflation as possible. By achieving this goal, it is only logical to assume that any existing inequalities would remain in place as standards remained the same across the board. Schools and colleges with a good past record would be guaranteed to continue to maintain this position in 2020. Others with a lesser record would stay at the back as before. 

Sure enough, with ‘Student-level equalities analyses for GCSE and A level Summer 2020’, Ofqual has excelled itself with the conclusion “for GCSEs and A Levels, there is no evidence that either the calculated grades or the final grades awarded this year were systematically biased against candidates with protected characteristics or from disadvantaged backgrounds.” 

The 180 pages of the .pfd document are packed with multivariate analysis tables comparing actual results from 2018 and 2019 with the Centre assessment grade (CAG) determinations from 2020. 

The report largely reiterates the same conclusions reached in August with ‘Awarding GCSE, AS, A level, advanced extension awards and extended project qualifications in summer 2020: interim report August 2020’. It concluded “The analyses show no evidence that this year’s process of awarding grades has introduced bias”. 

Hiding a problem. 

Both reports consider the possible effect on results based on gender, ethnicity, free school meals and socioeconomic status. Socioeconomic status (SES) is categorised into low, medium, and high groups for convenience. This is a common classification system that consolidates many different measures. These are not fully defined in the report, but the assumption might be that students and their families are placed into one of these categories based on combined income, education, and occupation. The IFS has a good explanation from 2019 in ‘A comparison of commonly used socio-economic indicators’. However, an earlier report by Ofqual in August defined the three SES groups in equal proportions in a ranking based upon family income and the ‘Income deprivation affecting children index (IDACI)’ that forms part of the ‘English Indices of Deprivation 2019’ . These are usually ranked by decile in the National Pupil Database

Thus, the differential between the very top and bottom of the index is somewhat diluted due to the methodology used by Ofqual. 

One wonders if there might have been a more pronounced bias against the disadvantaged at the extreme ends of the IDACI spectrum. By division into three groups instead of ten, this effect may have been hidden. 

Two very important existing effects on fairness and equality are not considered in the report. The first is the inherent unreliability and possible inaccuracy of the examination assessments and the second is the existing inequality that standardisation using CAGs managed to maintain. 

There is a pressing need to look again at the examination assessment methodology. This must be accompanied by a serious look at the extent of inequality in education provision. Seeking ways to hide this in the data is not a serious way forward. 

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.


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