As a new generation of students turns from sunbathing to exam results, and the celebration or panic that follows, we’re reminded again of how fragile university life has become. With fees set to rise, uncertainty about higher education’s place in government, and a new report showing the ‘graduate premium’ on lifetime earnings is a bit more hit and miss than we might have been led to believe, spare a thought for another uncertainty facing our eighteen-year olds: can the results they will get this week actually be relied on?
The press will of course be full of statistics and tables, along with statutory pictures of jumping, photogenic teenagers, but try being the parent of, or advising, a young person whose future is literally inexplicably torpedoed. Last year, the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) tracked national exam result trends very closely, especially given public concern about spiralling re-marks – over 572 thousand appeals were lodged for public exam results in 2015, resulting in an eye-watering 91,000 re-grades.
With a third of a million would-be undergraduates taking on average three A-level or equivalent qualifications apiece, and having taken say an average of ten GCSEs each on the way, there will be some millions of pieces of data for students to receive and universities and employers to judge. Some will be rogue.
But the problem of unreliable results is getting worse. Last year’s figures showed a 300% increase in re-grades over a five-year period, and even the universities’ quango, Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (SPA) has voiced concern about the effect of all of this on fairness in access to higher education. The fear, rightly, is that the better-resourced the school and student, the more likely they are to demand and achieve justice. Hardly fair.
Especially when the subject at stake is so obviously central as English.
HMC were so concerned about unreliable results in Cambridge International Exams’ IGCSE English last year that a report was specially commissioned, looking closely at evidence which public bodies had skimmed over. It concluded that this qualification ‘showed a grade profile completely out of line with the abilities of the candidates ... the mark range between unit grade A and unit grade C on one paper was just four raw marks... the volume of data and the analyses speak for themselves. It is an inescapable conclusion that a major problem existed with the June 2015 results’.
For anyone needing a good grade in English – and that means anyone doing a high-profile subject like medicine – this is chilling reading.
Or imagine you are a linguist – and heavens knows, we’ll need them – once again, grades awarded are hugely unreliable. The annual British Council Language Trends survey in April 2016 tells us that “teachers from the independent and state sectors express deep concerns about the inconsistency in marking pupils’ examination papers and the negative impact this has on pupils’ and parents’ perception of the subject as a whole". In the independent sector, “more than half of teachers (56 per cent) are dissatisfied in some way with the grading of exams" (compared to 48 per cent in state schools). When you see how many fewer top grades in languages are awarded (with a percentage continuing to fall in 2015), these concerns are once again sobering.
Small wonder that schools nervous about Ofsted judgements are avoiding languages. Or that schools are panicking about which GCSE courses to choose for the best (including which ones might actually be reliably marked?)
What then to do?
Luckily, we have an independent regulator, whose job it is to ensure no young person suffers as a result of unfairness: Ofqual (‘Your qualification, our regulation’). Their recent response to the growing number of re-mark requests has been to make it harder to get one. A long-awaited report into fairness in exam results concluded that a result only had to be within a ‘reasonable’ tolerance, and an exam board only to have followed their own procedure. These two modest tests passed, a candidate has no recourse.
The regulator’s interest seems to be concentrated on reducing the number of mark and grade changes by making them less likely to succeed. This does not increase fairness for all candidates: it sidesteps the obligation to ensure that every student passing through the exam system gets sufficiently accurate and precise marks and grades.
Ucas knows this. The medical schools know this. HMC can and does help all students – not just those at ‘our’ schools – by advising admissions tutors directly about the facts of dodgy exams... how otherwise would they know? It’s a good example of the forensic analysis HMC can undertake, and make available to all schools and teachers.
Don’t let’s forget that we are still talking here about a minority of exams, and a minority of candidates. But it still should not be necessary for us to brief universities and employers in this way, to do the work which should not be needed. Every candidate should have the right to an equally fair and robust judgment, allowing a fair chance at university, employment or whatever next step is their goal.
Ofqual should look at standards, not process. We should all demand quick and fair appeals if they are needed. Universities should understand that our fragile exams system may need them to be more flexible about acceptance timing.
Above all, university admissions teams should be encouraged by the new Office for Students to put time and money not into meeting artificial quotas, but into getting into and understanding schools, students and qualifications, on a granular and detailed basis. A-levels were designed for universities: it is time for universities to reclaim and own them.
Chris Ramsey is headmaster of The King’s School Chester and chair of the HMC Universities Committee