Robert Halfon: Ofqual must not be afraid of scrutiny

To avoid disadvantaging large groups of pupils, Ofqual must publish details of its grading model immediately, says Robert Halfon MP

Robert Halfon

Coronavirus schools

In a few weeks, the anxious annual wait for our young people will finally come to an end as they collect their GCSE and A-level exam results. For many, it is a time of celebration, when all their hard work from previous months and years finally pays off, and they get the grades that allow them to move on. 

This year, however, there is an added worry. There is the risk that some students will not be getting the results they deserve.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused huge unavoidable disruption throughout society, and nowhere more so than in our schools and colleges. The Department for Education and exams regulator Ofqual moved swiftly when it became clear this summer’s exams could not be held safely, and we should recognise the enormous amount of work that has gone into devising an alternative method of ensuring young people get their grades. There is no perfect alternative to exams as a judge of our children’s performance. 

Not fair to every student

Students will carry their qualifications with them for their entire lives, however, so everything possible must be done to ensure calculated grades are accurate. But our cross-party parliamentary education committee has serious concerns that the system described by Ofqual as the “fairest possible in the circumstances” could be unfair for groups including disadvantaged pupils, BAME (black, Asian and minority-ethnic) students, looked-after children and students with special educational needs and disabilities.

There is a substantial body of academic evidence, outlined in our report, on the risk of human bias when calculating grades. Teachers have done an exceptional job in the circumstances, but even they appear sceptical of the fairness of this year’s system of awarding grades. 

A Tes survey from May 2020, of around 19,000 school staff, found that just 39 per cent of school staff in England think the system will be fair to all.

Ofqual’s standardisation model, which aims to adjust grades to ensure they are broadly in line with previous years, will therefore be vital. However, there are concerns about the risks of using historic data, which might not be fair for newer schools, smaller schools, or for improving and turnaround schools that are on an upward trajectory.

It adds up to the very real risk that this year’s system of awarding grades will not be fair to every student, or to every school. Ofqual should not be afraid of scrutiny or open debate over whether its model offers the fairest outcome for every student and provider, and should therefore publish details of its standardisation model immediately and be clear how it will use it to ensure already disadvantaged groups are not left out.

Favouring the well heeled

The appeals system should act as a safety net for those dissatisfied with their grades. However, this year, because of the narrowness of the appeals criteria, the dice will be loaded against those navigating the process without support. The system will favour the well heeled and sharp elbowed, and the criteria of bias and discrimination set out by Ofqual will be incredibly hard for individual students to ascertain and to prove.

The education committee is pleased that Ofqual has committed to setting up a phone line to help students and their families, after we raised this in our session with them. They must now go further, and ensure it is properly staffed and that its operators clearly guide everyone through the process.

Catch-up support for students who have missed out on learning during the pandemic is also going to be vital. Some may point to the resurrection of the exams in the autumn as an avenue for those who want to boost their grades. But these will come too late for students needing grades for university this year, and will remain a fanciful option for many without a commitment from the DfE that they will be properly supported by teaching.

Indeed, the government should go further on catch-up support, and extend funding to include disadvantaged post-16 pupils, who may be resitting English and maths GCSEs or preparing for final exams before university or moving into a job. The pandemic’s impact on learning loss does not stop when pupils turn 16. 

There is still hope that all young people will get what they’ve earned. But, for this to happen, Ofqual and the government must act now so that this generation can go on to flourish in the future, and continue to climb the educational ladder of opportunity.

Robert Halfon MP is chair of the House of Commons Education Select Committee

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