UPDATE 1st March2021 Since writing this post, there has been valuable analysis added to the worsening situation by Lee Elliot-Major, Chair of Social Mobility at Exeter University and former head of the Sutton Trust. His article in The Guardian today, ‘How do we ensure disadvantaged kids don't lose out in England's new exam system?’ concludes that “it will be long after this summer’s exam grade battles that we will comprehend the full consequences this pandemic has had on young people.” That could be an understatement as the idea of ‘social mobility’ unravels fast. He cites a recent research publication with colleagues at the LSE Centre for Economic Performance entitled ‘Unequal learning and labour market losses in the crisis: consequences for social mobility’. This is a detailed and rigorous analysis and survey that should set alarm bells ringing in government in the run-up to the budget this week. The evidence is stark as the “education and labour market losses due to Covid-19” are “disproportionately harming economic and social outcomes for people from less advantaged backgrounds. This does not bode well for the social mobility prospects of the Covid-19 generation more generally”. Hopefully it will be addressed by the government.
Ofqual has been set its next ‘Herculean’ task by the Department for Education (DfE) and it looks like it will have to slay the multi-headed ‘Hydra’ of assessments alone. There is no doubt this is a difficult task and unforeseen consequences will emerge as fast as they are dealt with. The government may be expecting failure and again seek to lay any blame at the door of Ofqual. However, they might find Ofqual better prepared and well armed by the bruising encounters of last year. In the midst of all this, it is hoped that fairness and disadvantaged students are not the first casualties in the quest to defeat the assessment Hydra.
It seems the government and the DfE (Eurystheus) have set the next task for Ofqal’s ‘Herecles’ to seek atonement for past mistakes. Ofqual must slay the multi-headed ‘Hydra’ of assessments without setting any examinations. But just as they think they have removed one head another will appear. The monster was spawned by the past government and it could be a trap for Ofqual. Even if Ofqual succeeds, it is likely they will not be given credit for the achievement. Instead, it may be that lessons learned over the next period could be used to kill off other mythical creatures, that represent examinations and their worth, in the future. The events of the coming months could turn out to be poisonous for the government well into the future.
The secretary of state, Gavin Williamson, issued his latest letter on Tuesday in the saga of the examination crisis ‘Direction from the Secretary of State for Education to Ofqual's Chief Regulator about how GCSE, AS, A level and vocational and technical qualifications should be awarded in 2021’. The twelve-page instructions were sent this time to Simon Lebus, the Chief regulator of Ofqual. They represent a major departure from the directives issued almost a year ago for the 2020 examinations. Then the emphasis was on maintaining ‘standards’ with equality and fairness to students omitted. His letter of 31st of March 2020 to the soon to resign Chief Regulator, Sally Collier, stressed that maintaining standards was the top propriety with “it is Government policy that these students should be issued with calculated results based on their exam centres”. His later claim in September to the Education Committee that the importance of “children from disadvantaged and ethnic minority backgrounds” was included in the letter was not correct (See TEFS 23rd October 2020 ‘Ofqual lets the cat out of the bag’). Now, it seems neither disadvantaged students nor standards are at stake.
The response by Simon Lebus for Ofqual was issued yesterday and included further details about how assessments will be achieved in practice, ‘Simon Lebus responds to the Secretary of State’s direction of 23 February 2021’. He makes it clear that maintaining standards is not possible with “First, Ofqual and exam boards normally use a range of tools to secure consistent standards between students, and over time. It will not be possible to use the same approaches this year because exams will not take place.” This confirms that adjustment of marks using ‘algorithms’ to set individual grades based on the past performance of schools and colleges will not happen at the level of Ofqual.
While the instructions apply in England, the GCSE and A Level system in Wales and Northern Ireland will be affected since the exam boards also span these jurisdictions. Scotland has a different system that would not be affected. It is also good to see that, unlike last year, qualifications such as BTECs are included at the outset this time (see TEFS 5th April 2020 ‘To BTEC or not to BTEC, that is the question’).
The simple conclusion is that the burden of responsibility for awarding grades has been lowered onto the backs of teachers and schools. However, it seems Ofqual is still expected to play a policing role and this will have consequences.
Grades already predicted.
For those students considering university this year, their predicted grades have already been issued to UCAS. It would be very odd if a school then awarded grades a few months later that were lower than those already predicted. There is provision for appeals and this alone could trigger many challenges. UCAS recently extended by two weeks its usual deadline of 15th January 2021 for applications to universities to be sent in. These include a reference and predicted grades. The definition of a predicted grade is the “grade of qualification an applicant’s school or college believes they’re likely to achieve in positive circumstances”. This provides a university with a clear guide to decide which students are to be made offers. UCAS stresses that the predictions must be “aspirational but achievable – stretching predicted grades can be motivational for students”. Now they are likely to be more like the final grades. Teachers are in a difficult position under the new regime. In the past, they predicted grades and helped students to achieve them. They were trusted to do this. In setting the grades themselves they must maintain the same level of trust. Any departure from predictions will trigger appeals and a loss of trust. On the university side, it will be assumed now that UCAS predicted grades will be definitive grades and offers will emerge on this basis. It will be interesting to see how many unconditional offers are made and what effect this has on the proportion of disadvantaged students accepted.
Ghost of algorithms past.
A key feature of the announcement is that teachers’ grades will be used without the application of an Ofqual algorithm to make adjustments. This is to be welcomed, but it does not come without a sting in the tail. Ofqual are still empowered to make checks. The idea of setting grades based upon the past performance of the school or college persists. However, it will be teachers who now administer this part of the process. Williamson made it clear that further checks will be made “where the centres’ submitted grades appear significantly lower or higher than past performance”. This will have the effect of downward pressure on the UCAS predicted grades. The dilemma for schools and colleges is stark if their UCAS predicted grades do not match past performance.
Disadvantaged students what the Williamson letter does not say.
The main concern of TEFS is that fairness and equality of opportunity for students with fewer advantages is ensured. This aspect is missing in the instructions from Williamson and in the response from Lebus. Students who struggled with access to learning and difficult home conditions this year will find themselves at the mercy of the system with no chance to redeem themselves in an examination. The problem of teacher predicted grades adversely affecting disadvantaged students is very well established as described in the heavily cited report by the Sutton trust in 2017 ‘Rules of the Game: 17 Disadvantaged students and the university admissions process’. This study concluded that “high attaining disadvantaged students are more likely to have their grades under-predicted than their richer counterparts”. This bias will be inherent in the current plan to use teacher predicted grades and, although there is some concern, there is no solution on the table.
The root of the problem.
The decision to push most of the assessment for university entrance onto final examinations at A-level led to problems last year in making judgements based on earlier work. This became government policy back in 2014 under Education secretary, Michael Gove who wanted “a greater focus on exams rather than controlled assessment” in an effort to counter grade inflation. It looks like a very bad idea in hindsight. TEFS has called for a radical overhaul of the A-level system in the light of this and recently proposed wider assessments and decisions about university entrance a year earlier as happens in Scotland and Ireland (see TEFS 15th January 2021 ‘A radical overhaul of examinations is needed as soon as possible’)
Other countries may be in a better position.
There has been some debate about how other countries arrange assessments for university entrance. Ofqual itself has reviewed this in May 2020 and it partially explains why the system in England is in such a tangle, ‘The impact of the coronavirus outbreak on exams around the world’. The Economist also recently provided an illuminating overview of what is happening elsewhere in Europe that places the UK in a very disadvantageous position (13th February 2021 ‘Covid-19 school closures are widening Europe’s class divisions’).
Generally, course work comprises a larger proportion of the assessments elsewhere and makes the option of cancelling examinations less of a leap in the dark. Grade point Average (GPA) is used in the USA and “the USA bases much of its university admissions on teacher assessments without any statistical moderation”. Germany found itself in an enviable position of examinations being earlier in the year and carried on with them last year after delays. The same is happening this year with the ‘Abitur’ or schools leaving examinations. Course work typically accounts for a high percentage of the final grades. Good examples are Norway at 80%, The Netherlands, 50% and Italy, 40%. The UK government has a long way yet to realise its basic mistake not to include more course work elements from the outset. The UK government should take heed of what the best systems offer.
The DfE and Ofqual launched a consultation about their assessment proposals in January. This now seems to be merely a smokescreen behind which the decisions were already made. The full results were released yesterday and revealed an unprecedented interest in contributing. The submission by TEFS was swamped by the total of 100,596 submissions. Yet it was hoped that the call for caution not to disadvantage students with fewer resources for access to learning would not fall on deaf ears. However, the pre-set questions were not designed to extract such views and it is clear the issue has been side-lined by Williamson for now. Of the total responses it is interesting that 50,779 were from students.
However, there is acknowledgement of the impact on students with disadvantages in the document released yesterday ‘Decisions on how GCSE, AS and A level grades will be determined in summer 2021’ but there is still no clear solution to addressing it. They observe that “Consultation respondents also raised concerns about the potential for some students to be disadvantaged by teacher assessment because of conscious or unconscious bias or discrimination”. However, they largely based their conclusions on reports from last summer that set out warnings, such as in the Institute for Fiscal Studies September 2020 report ‘2020 ‘Family time use and home learning during the COVID-19 lockdown’. They conclude that “there is evidence that the impact of disruption has affected students from disadvantaged groups more than others”.
This was not considered further and with the process well underway in 2021 it remains to be seen what the effects will be for those with the least advantages.
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.