Policy & Economy

Changing Secondary School Exam Grades due to Covid-19? Expect Legal Challenges

It is always an anxious time, but this year there is extra pressure on students awaiting A level results. Following the Scottish Higher results announced last week, there is more pressure as the media focuses on the injustices done by a system that has dispensed with normal exams and assessments to determine final results.

When COVID-19 first led to a lockdown, the UK Government promised that teacher assessment would be used to determine final grades at A level and GCSE level in the UK. Since education policy is devolved, this was clearly pointed at England. The exams regulator, OFQUAL, in conjunction with the Department of Education has announced a limited role for teacher assessment and an even more narrow ability to appeal the decisions on grades. I am a member of the advisory board of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and it has provided this excellent guide to students and parents: https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2020/08/10/a-levels-2020-what-students-and-parents-need-to-know/

The upshot is that the academic judgment of teachers on an individual student’s performance has been replaced by an algorithm. When a school has more than 20 students entered for an exam, the exam body will project the grades that those students will achieve using prior year performance of past students. If a student is ranked 20th in the class, then they will get the result of the average 20th student in prior years. The school can appeal the result but there are narrow conditions for an appeal (for example where a mathematical error has occurred and the student is ranked 19th rather than 20). To find out about this, a student could make a ‘Freedom of Information Act’ request to see what has been said about them.

On 10 August, the Minister for Universities Michelle Donelan MP wrote to university vice chancellors to ask them to be flexible with admissions criteria and to exclude students who appeal from any student number controls imposed on the university (i.e. universities have more latitude to accept students who are appealing). UCAS has extended the time for confirming a university place by one week; 42 days is the time frame for dealing with appeals. It feels like students who appeal may well be able to get that university place, so maybe the precise grading will not matter just yet.

I know that large law firms use A level grades to determine job and work experience offers so the grades are important in the long run. No doubt there is going to be a legal challenge to this process. As my colleague writing for HEPI says: “This would not be an appeal against academic judgment; on the contrary, it would be an appeal to restore the academic judgment of teachers overturned by a statistical algorithm”.

So, if you don’t get the A levels you expected, it looks like you should seek information from the school about what the expected grade was, ask them to appeal, confirm with your chosen employer/university whether that the job/place is still available. If you have missed out then no doubt some law firms will be gathering up unhappy students for a class action lawsuit. Not a happy place to be for a generation of students already badly impacted through no fault of their own.

Professor Carl Lygo, Vice Chancellor at Arden University

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