The Government is under increasing pressure to review its moderation and appeals system after thousands of pupils’ A-level results in England were downgraded amid cancelled exams due to Covid-19.
Nearly two in five (39.1%) of teachers’ estimates for pupils in England were adjusted down by one grade or more, according to data from Ofqual, which amounts to around 280,000 entries.
The proportion of students with A-level grade reductions was largest among those from the most deprived backgrounds, but the regulator has insisted that there was no evidence of systemic bias.
Schools and colleges were told to submit the grades they thought each student would have received if they had sat the papers, alongside a rank order of students, after exams were cancelled amid Covid-19.
Exam boards moderated these centre-assessment grades to ensure this year’s results were not significantly higher than previous years, and the value of students’ grades were not undermined.
After standardisation, the proportion of A-level entries awarded top grades still rose to an all-time high, with 27.9% securing an A or above this year, figures for England, Wales and Northern Ireland show.
But school leaders warned of a “great deal of volatility” in results at individual centres, with some colleges reporting that more than half of their grades had been adjusted downwards after moderation.
Overall, in England a total of 35.6% of grades were adjusted down by one grade, 3.3% were brought down by two grades and 0.2% came down by three grades, figures show.
Some 85% of candidates classed as having a “low” socio-economic status by Ofqual had been predicted to achieve a C and above by their schools.
But this fell to 74.6% once final grades were calculated under this year’s new moderation process – a drop of 10.4 percentage points.
By contrast, the proportion of students from the least deprived backgrounds, or “high” socio-economic status, awarded a C and above fell by 8.3 percentage points during the process, from 89.3% to 81.0%.
Ministers are now facing calls to urgently review its moderation process in England and to make sure that schools and colleges do not face financial barriers when lodging appeals for students.
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, who has written to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, is concerned the process may have disadvantaged larger centres – such as colleges.
A letter to Mr Williamson from the AoC says: “We cannot stand by when the evidence suggests that many thousands of students may have missed out on their grades because of a systemic bias.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), called on the Government and Ofqual to review the moderation process in England “as a matter of urgency”.
“We would warn them against simply digging in their heels, and insisting all is well,” he said.
Education unions – including the National Union of Students – have called on the Government to follow Scotland’s lead and scrap moderated exam grades and to use teachers’ original predicted grades instead.
On Tuesday, Scotland’s Education Secretary announced that lowered marks would be reverted back to teachers’ estimates following an outcry.
The Government announced late on Tuesday that students in England will have the “safety net” of being able to use mock exam results as the basis for an appeal if they are higher than the calculated grade.
But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called for all fees for A-level appeals to be waived in response to thousands of pupils having their results downgraded.
The Welsh Government has already announced that there will be no fees for appeals there, but the Department for Education (DfE) said appeal fees are a matter for individual exam boards in England, adding that there is no charge if an appeal is upheld.
Sir Keir also urged the Government to consider the sort of grading U-turn made by the Scottish Government this week.
Mr Williamson ruled out following the Scottish Government in reversing position.
He told Sky News: “When we’ve consulted widely, when Ofqual consulted widely (on) the whole system of awarding, this is the message that we got from everyone – this is the right approach to go forward.
“You’ve got to have a system that has checks and balances, that looks at the whole performance and making sure you maintain standards within the exam system, to ensure those results carry credibility.”
Boris Johnson defended Mr Williamson from criticism, adding that the exams system was “robust”.
The Prime Minister said this year’s A-level results were “good” and “dependable for employers”.
Speaking during a visit in Northern Ireland, Mr Johnson said: “I think overall we’ve got a very robust set of grades, plus you’ve got the situation in which more pupils than ever before are getting their first choice course at university and more kids from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university.”
Overall, the proportion of entries in England, Wales and Northern Ireland awarded the top A* grade this year has surged to 9%, the highest proportion since the top grade was first introduced in 2010.
In total, 27.9% of entries were awarded an A or A* grade this summer, which is up by 2.4 percentage points on last year when 25.5% achieved the top grades.
The figures, published by the Joint Council for Qualifications, cover A-level entries from students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland where around 300,000 students are receiving their results.
Private schools in England saw the biggest rise in top A-level grades awarded this year.
The proportion of students achieving A or A* grades grew by 4.7 percentage points this year, compared to a rise of 2 percentage points in state comprehensive schools, an Ofqual analysis found.
For sixth form and further education (FE) colleges, the increase was just 0.3 percentage points.
Responding to calls for a review of the system, an Ofqual spokesman said: “The approach we developed with exam boards and assessment experts for awarding GCSEs, AS and A-levels is the fairest way of giving students an opportunity to move on in the unprecedented circumstances this year.”
He added that the standardisation model “is not biased towards any particular centre type”.