It would be an under-statement to say that 13th August was an unusual and erratic A-level results day. Usually teachers and students wait for the release of results in nervous anticipation, hoping that the grade that is provided is the one that has been fought for and deserved. However, due to COVID-19, this year’s results was a much different ball game altogether. The whole affair was nothing short of a shambles. But why was this?

At the end of March 2020 my college – like all the other colleges and schools around the country – shut its doors. We continued online teaching for our first year A-level learners (due to the need to continue with content to help them for the eventual return to college), however, for our second years a different approach was taken: after we were satisfied with covering all the content, the college life of these learners ended. Instead of continuing studying, teachers had to come up with grades for each learner based on the assessed work completed over the preceding 18 months.

This approach was, of course, drastically different to the usual pattern: A-level learners would have completed course content by the Easter break, leading to intense revision sessions to help prepare them for their final exams in the months of May and June. It is these exams in which they “prove” their ultimate performance, which then lead to a final grade come August. The lack of these final months was, from a teacher perspective, rather frustrating: despite the frenzied and anxious feelings, these revision weeks are when students gear themselves for battle and, in some cases, the penny finally drops (as I previously noted back in April 2018). I have always enjoyed these weeks, especially because it provides a sense of closure for myself and the class; our journey of two years in the classroom comes to an end.

COVID-19 scuppered such a journey, which is entirely understandable. But what happened instead was a frustrating process, for both teacher and student. Teaching teams looked back at assessed grades in order to determine a final ultimate grade: this included previous mock exams. Luckily, my college undertakes rigorous, regular assessments, but it was worrying to read in a Guardian article about how just less than 60% of sixth forms undertake a similar process (of course, assessment isn’t everything, but how the heck are these other centres tracking the progress of their students?!).

This process was a tough one. Nobody knew the process because, quite simply, this had not happened before. But the central thinking was that the students would get “the grades they deserved” (as claimed Boris Johnson earlier in the year when he scraped A-level exams). And so, teaching teams provided centre assessed grades (CAGs) for each student. This process was a tough one because although the heart would have wanted to dish out A*s to every student, we went with an evidence informed approach: a student’s CAG would be based on their previous performance in assessments.

Such an approach was, in some ways, very fair: if a student had consistently obtained C grades then it was honest to provide them with a C grade as their CAG. Similarly, if a student obtained consistent A grades then they were an A grade student, and if they had obtained E grades then they were given an E grade. Previous evidence of assessment helped massively with this regard, which again poses questions as to how other centres judged grades without this data (but that is another debate).

But the fairness of this approach can be questioned. Quite simply, many students do not approach internal assessments with the same seriousness as they would external summative exams. Furthermore, many subjects – including the ones I teach (History and Politics) – are a continual journey of building up content and skills; therefore, judging them on a mock exams undertaken before the journey’s end is not wholly indicative of their overall ability. A-levels are strange qualifications, with the student preparing for the final exams after two years of study and preparation: a grade provided with the final few most crucial months missing would disadvantage those types students who pull it together during this period (the “penny-dropping” period, as previously mentioned).

However, from a teacher perspective, the CAGs made some sort of sense: it was in our hands to provide fair grades. And so after internal moderation of the grades to ensure that the overall grade profile reflected previous years and to ensure that every grade was consistent with evidence, we sent off the CAGs. However, the next step in the process was rather unknown. Fingers were crossed that a rigorous approach would be undertaken to scrutinise grades to ensure that everyone got “the grades they deserve”.

So, fast forward to August. The results were issued and my college – South Devon College – did well with the results. I had a look at my students for A-level History and, on the whole, the grades were fine: the cohort, like the rest of the A-level students, did as well as other successful years. However, when looking further into the results a few oddities appeared: half of the class had been downgraded. This was gutting because these students had been downgraded below a grade from which “they deserved.” Furthermore, when looking at the AS-level results (for first year students), the grades were very disappointing and confusing; one student who consistently obtained A grades throughout the year (and who will, I am positive, obtain an A* in 2021) was downgraded from an A to a C! Others had been downgraded from a D to a U. It was utterly gutting to speak to these downgraded students: these students had been massively let down by the system.

So, what happened here? It appears that the government completely ignored the CAGs that had been provided (and which had been much discussed over by teachers) and instead utilised a flawed algorithm to determine the final grades. This approach simply utilised the rankings provided by teachers and then utilised previous performance over the past 3 years in order to provide the final grades.

Obviously such a system was clearly unfair as it disadvantaged exceptional students from centres which historically obtained average grades. The media was awash with stories of clear injustices: of top students reduced down by several grades. This process, then, jeopardised the futures of these students, and led to calls of elitism due to areas classified as disadvantaged being penalised by the algorithm.

What happened after this was a public backlash. At first I did not hold out much hope of a governmental U-turn, however, this Johnson government has made a habit of U-turns whenever the public and media pose questions. An intelligent colleague of mine noted that the government would U-turn, but not for the “right reasons” (to award the students fair grades) but rather due to selfish, populist reasons. Either way, right or wrong, the government back-tracked: the algorithm was scraped and the CAGs were issued instead. All is well that ends well, right?

Well, not quite. Despite the CAGs ending as the final grade many issues remain over the entire process. These include:

  • Why couldn’t the government and Ofqual foresee such problems before A-level results day? A bit of scrutiny of the system would have revealed the many flaws.
  • Have all students obtained their preferred university places? On 13th August thousands of students were turned away from their courses due to downgraded results and many places may have been taken through UCAS Clearing.
  • Is there parity with CAGs across the country? Although I have faith in my college’s teacher assessed grades, can the same be said for every other college and sixth form around the country? If there has been little scrutiny and moderation, how can we be sure that an A grade in my college is the same value as an A grade provided by another college? Did other centres undertake the same rigorous internal moderation process? It is impossible for anyone to answer this and therefore there are serious concerns about grade inflation.

So, on the whole, this process was a frustrating and confusing one. There was a lack of clear guidance and the recent U-turn highlights governmental incompetence. Much anxiety and heartache could have been avoided if more input was provided by actual teachers much earlier in the process.

Ultimately, have the students got the grades they deserve? There is no way to answer that on a national basis. All of which poses a final question for this post: when is a grade actually a grade? As we’ve seen with this process, the grades changed within days, and so perhaps we should be asking whether or not the grade itself has any value and ask if there is a better way of educating young people. This process has highlighted how it is clear that we – as a country – are not recognising the true talents and abilities of our young people; maybe we – educators and the education system – can do better than what we currently have. But for now I will save that debate for another day, because I have rambled on for far too long. Let’s hope that 2021 will see a return to some normality and the development of questions about the suitability of exams and our education system.