'I have never seen such a car-crash set of results'

The reaction of headteachers shows that this is a line-in-the-sand moment for our education system, writes Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

A-level results day 2020: 'This is a car-crash set of reuslts'

Since yesterday, my email inboxes have been filling up ominously with messages from distraught and sometimes furious headteachers about how the standardisation process has pulled down A-level grades in a way they find unfathomable and unfair.

They paint a worrying picture of a process that – it seems increasingly clear to us – has gone wrong, with severe detriment to students. Here’s a flavour: 

'Worst-ever set of results'

“We are facing pupils and teachers in tears this morning, as they receive their exam results. Some students have gone down by two grades, and 60 per cent of our courses have been downgraded. 

“We are an improving school with an upward trend in exam results, but have had our worst-ever set of results today. I am at a loss what to do. Teachers are angry and saddened for our students, who have been treated so unfairly.”

'Rejected'

“A girl in our school – which, as you will know, is in a challenging environment – had a Cambridge offer. She’s been downgraded from three A*s to A*, A, B. Cambridge have rejected her.”

'A car-crash set of results'

“I have been a senior leader for over 20 years. I have never seen such a car-crash set of results at A level and AS. There seems no rhyme nor reason – bizarre regradings which create deep injustices in the results we are about to release to individuals.” 

'Impossible to understand'

“We are outraged by the results. The cohort were at least as strong as previous years, and the recommended grades we provided were thoroughly evidenced. However, the results we have been given are lower than any we have achieved in recent record (at least the last eight years). 

“It is impossible for us to understand the basis by which this has happened. Many very capable pupils have missed their places at university.” 

'Bizarre and random'

“At my school, we had a very rigorous process, and there was considerable moderation before grades were submitted. We are a high-performing school, but we were conscious that grades needed to be fully justified. What we submitted was therefore based not only on evidence but also on the accuracy of predictions to date. 

“In our view, what was sent through was both realistic and fair – what has been awarded, on the other hand, is the most bizarre and random allocation of grades imaginable. There appears to be no particular pattern and it is hard to discern any clear system in how grades have been awarded.” 

'Our students deserve better'

“We are incredulous about how the grade distribution has adversely affected our students. Nearly 50 per cent of centre-assessed grades were downgraded, with only 3 per cent uplift, with no correlation to historic performance or prior attainment that we can fathom. 

“Our students deserve better than this, and we, as a profession, deserve better than to have our CAGs ignored, only for an 11th-hour populist – but completely ignorant – announcement about the use of mocks. We don’t even give mock grades, as we use them as formative assessment tools.”

'A crushing blow'

 “We felt quite confident going into today that our students would benefit from our record of success. The downgrading of results has been a crushing blow. There is clearly no sense of the impact on individuals – students who have been downgraded across all three/four subjects and a significant number who have been downgraded by two grades.

"Two students going down into U grades in subjects with no record of U grades in the previous three years.” 

'Completely shellshocked'

“We have been completely shellshocked by the results. We adhered to all the guidance in terms of creating CAGs, and were comfortable that our headline figures and value-added at a school and subject level were in line with the previous three years. 

“However, we have seen so many students having grades pushed down that it simply does not make sense. Staff are disillusioned that all the hard work that they put into the CAGs seems to have been ignored. The fact that the government wishes to use mocks instead (which we have already taken into account in the CAGs) makes a mockery of the system.”

A-level results: Penalising the students

These messages tell a very different story from the national statistics released this morning, which show an overall increase in top grades. But statistics seldom tell the full story. 

Bubbling below the surface is a much more complex picture, with huge turbulence at school and student level. It is very hard to understand exactly what has happened across such a huge system, and particularly to do so at speed. But it is vital that this process happens. 

We are calling on the government and Ofqual to review the situation as a matter of urgency. Our colleagues at the Association of Colleges have this morning also called for a review. There’s something in the process that is penalising precisely the students in precisely the institutions that you would never want to see penalised.

It isn’t good enough for the government to dismiss these concerns by saying that schools and colleges can attempt to battle their way through the appeals process. 

Chaos and inconsistency

And the last-minute idea that unhappy students may be able to use mock results is a deeply flawed solution. The fact that mocks are taken at different times, using different papers and that some students won’t have taken them at all, is a recipe for chaos and inconsistency.

Neither is the autumn exam series a solution. Students would need to revise for courses they finished seven or eight months ago, and return to centres where they no longer study. And the strain on the centres themselves could be massive, having to manage these exams, as well as the full return of schools.

We accept that the circumstances have been very challenging, and that no process could possibly be perfect. We accept also that there needed to be some form of standardisation for the sake of consistency. 

But there is a difference between recognising reality and sitting idly by when a significant injustice is unfolding.

This is a line-in-the-sand moment for our education system. We have to do better than this for young people whose lives have already undergone such massive disruption as a result of the coronavirus crisis. They should not be left with today’s bleak legacy.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton 

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