Grades U-turn: 10 questions Ofqual must answer tomorrow

What are the questions Ofqual is likely to face from MPs as it defends its role in the A-level and GCSE grading crisis?

Catherine Lough

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Ofqual will face questioning by MPs tomorrow following the exam grading chaos it presided over this summer, when many A-level students received grades far lower than they had expected, only to have these overturned by a government U-turn.

The exams regulator will be questioned by the Commons Education Select Committee on Wednesday over how and why its algorithm caused so much confusion for students, parents and teachers.

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So, what will Ofqual be asked? Here, we give a preview of some of the questions that the regulator will likely face.

Why wasn't the regulator more transparent?

In the education committee's report on grading, published on 11 July, it called upon Ofqual to publish details of its grading standardisation model "immediately".

The regulator refused to release full details of its algorithm, claiming this would create confusion for schools. But critics have pointed out that, had schools been able to see how the statistical modelling mapped on to their grades before A-level results day, some of the chaos could have been avoided. 

Who designed the algorithm? And how much were ministers told in advance?

Schools minister Nick Gibb has maintained that he did not see the algorithm until results day, and suggested that "something went wrong" with its implementation.

But this begs the question, precisely what information was shared by Ofqual with ministers before results day? And, if there was an issue with its "implementation", was there any kind of dummy run to assess how it might work?

Is Ofqual fit for purpose?

Ofqual has recently advertised for new positions in its communications team, with a contract worth up to £80,000.

But its handling of the results crisis raises questions over the organisation's future, and whether its communication with both the public and the Department for Education has been up to scratch.

Robert Halfon, chair of the education committee, told Tes: "The question is whether the relationship between the DfE and Ofqual has become dysfunctional, and whether or not there are fundamental questions about the future role of Ofqual and whether or not it should be brought back into the department."

Did Ofqual spot an in-built advantage for private schools in its algorithm?

Prior to the government U-turn on results, independent schools saw their proportion of A and A* grades at A-level soar. 

Ofqual appeared to have missed an in-built advantage for private schools in the algorithm -–grades were not standardised and teacher-assessed grades were awarded for subjects with entries of five students or fewer.

This benefited private schools, which tend to have smaller class sizes and take a proportionately larger share of small-entry subjects, such as music or Latin. 

But, in the education committee's report in July, it asked "what steps are being taken to ensure that the standardisation model is fair to all types of institution?," adding that "Ofqual told us that they are testing the impact their model has on different school types to ensure standardisation does not have an adverse consequence for a particular school type".

As the committee had warned Ofqual about possible disadvantages for some school types, it will want to know if the regulator spotted the way the algorithm advantaged private schools. And, if so, why was this not mentioned in advance?

How will disadvantaged students and those from ethnic minority backgrounds prove bias in the awarding of centre-assessed grades?

In its July report, the Commons education committee said that "it is right that pupils should be able to appeal their [teacher-assessed] grade if they believe bias or discrimination has occurred, but Ofqual has not given enough thought on how to make this route accessible to all pupils".

"Without support, proving bias or discrimination would be an almost impossible threshold for any pupil to evidence," it added.

Equalities groups such as the Runnymede Trust raised similar concerns prior to the release of results. So what will the thresholds be for black, Asian and/or minority ethnic students, students with SEND and disadvantaged children to prove that their school was biased against them? And was the impact on disadvantaged students assessed in advance?

Why was appeals guidance published, only to be withdrawn?

Prior to the government's U-turn on grading, Ofqual published information on how A-level grades could be appealed, only to withdraw it hours later. Why was the information taken down, and what happened in the interim?

Furthermore, the committee will want to establish why BTECs were only considered at the very last minute. 

What happened in the missing hours between the withdrawal of appeal arrangements and the U-turn over grading?

Ofqual is likely to be questioned why it ended up performing such a dramatic U-turn at the 11th hour over calculated grades. Were ministers involved beforehand – and, if so, what was their view?

The committee will more than likely seek to establish what happened between the withdrawal of appeals information and the U-turn on Monday 17 August.

And it will ask what questions ministers were asking prior to the publication of results. If Mr Gibb saw the model in advance, did anyone ask for a trial run of the algorithm? What assurances were given to the DfE?

Why has the algorithm awarded foundation tier students 'impossible' grades?

When GCSE students were awarded either their teacher-assessed grades, or, in some cases, the calculated grade where it was higher, some questioned some of the "impossible" grades awarded by the standardisation model to students.

Sir Jon Coles, chief executive of the United Learning Trust and a former Department for Education senior civil servant, asked why students entered for the foundation tier in some subjects – where the maximum grade is a 5 – were awarded grades of 6 or higher by the algorithm.

This meant students were awarded grades that it would have been impossible for them to achieve, had they sat the exams.

The committee will likely ask Ofqual why it did not factor this into its grading algorithm. 

Could Ofqual's communication have been better?

The committee might question why Ofqual did not communicate more directly with the media, or why former chief regulator Sally Collier did not make more appearances to explain the grading process.

Why wasn't the committee's report heeded?

Given that the committee's report raised concerns over bias, the impact of grading on disadvantaged students and a need for transparency on appeals, why did its advice go unheeded?


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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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