Your exam grades are one of the most important letters you’ll receive.

When exams were cancelled and school gates shut in March, few could have predicted the months of chaos, disruption and isolation that awaited.

But under the radar, one group of 800,000 had their futures sold silently down the river. With just a month until results day, how did the government get assigning grades so wrong?


On April 3, Ofqual announced how it would grade GCSE and A-level exams in the absence of physical assessments. The first stage was simple enough: teachers would assign to each student the grade which they believe that student is likely to achieve if they sat a physical exam. Stage two was a directive to take every student in the class and number them in rank order by not only the grade assigned in stage one, but also on their security in the predicted grade. This then enabled algorithms in stage three to correctly increase or decrease the grades of students who did not fit the pattern of the school’s previous results — something that this year’s students have no control over.

Sorry, did I lose you?

It’s a hopelessly complex system that does the exact opposite of what former fireplace salesman and therefore highly qualified Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told MPs would happen, when he said the system will be orientated to ensure leavers: ‘do not miss out on opportunities for which they have worked so hard’.

Under the new method, teachers who know their students best will likely be the ones whose opinion matters least, as any grade they wholeheartedly believe their students could achieve could be torn up because, well, ‘computer says no’.

A mysterious system …

If this feels like guesswork to you, it’s because it is. Ofqual haven’t told anyone how their mysterious algorithm actually works, meaning for all we know it’s simply Gavin Williamson, locked in a cupboard in Ofqual’s Coventry HQ, spinning a wheel to decide each student’s grades. In fact, it may be more accurate that way. FFT Datalab, one of the UK’s largest education think tanks, caused mass panic by publishing a report comparing teacher-submitted grades versus 2019s actual grades, which indicated that around 33 per cent of grades would need to be reduced to fit the government-prescribed intelligence criteria of all school leavers. If one in three students is to have their grade cut by lines of code, wouldn’t it be nice to at least inform those to be affected how it works?

Surely it is irresponsible to allow a shaky, improvised and untried system — developed in three weeks by an organisation that prides itself on being totally opaque and openly admits that it will only get the ‘vast majority’ of grades correct — to control and decide the grades of 800,000 students? If the same system was implemented in areas that the government find more pertinent, say their beloved points-based immigration system, would they accept a migrant-processing algorithm that had been devised in three weeks without any knowledge of how it worked or whom it might accept? — What if those who made it said it would stop the ‘vast majority’ of terrorists from entering the UK?

And, in another racism-related episode, the ‘fair and robust’ measures that have been allegedly put in place may or may not discriminate against BAME students. We don’t know for sure because whilst Ofqual’s own assessments say that BAME students are more likely to be over-predicted grades by teachers, a vast array of independent reviews — including one sanctioned by the Education Select Committeesaid that evidence for bias swang the other way; under-predicting the grades of disadvantaged and BAME students. Whilst Ofqual’s sample testing found no bias towards any particular group, the Education Committee again flagged the fact that the botched standardisation process could severely alter the grades of talented students in low-achieving schools. 

One such student is Lexie Bell, who’s father is suing Ofqual over its catalogue of failures including its lack of appeals process, which he claims is ‘against natural justice’. The lack of ability to make any form of alteration to grades adds extra pressure on a year group that is already the most affected in history, but now has the least support. Without an appeals process, exam boards become the autocratic judge, jury and executioner of our grades. While any objections — no matter how justified or vital to the ‘progression’ that Gavin Williamson claims to care about — are simply ignored.

Normally, slick marketing and PR gurus would be wheeling out strategic campaigns to put students at ease — but this is Ofqual, so instead we got Chief Executive Sally Collier, haplessly appearing on the Education Committee — and incidentally seeming to gain the superpower of vanishing from the face of the earth at the exact point she was needed most. The quality of what followed can only be accurately portrayed by the one letter all A-level students dread: U, for ungradable. There were few questions Collier could actually answer, at one point being told by Committee Chair Robert Halfon: ‘as the head of Ofqual, I hope you’re going to answer some questions today’, following her constant deferral of questions to one of Ofqual’s specialists. 

Casualties

It’s important to remember that behind the promises, stats and algorithms, there will always be a human cost. The tragedy of this cataclysmic and systemic failure will manifest itself on results day, in the tears of students who missed out on a place at their dream university by one grade — not because of their own failures, but because students who took exams an entire year earlier did not perform well enough to justify the grade originally assigned by their teacher. It will also manifest itself in the tears of teachers — who genuinely believed in their students’ abilities — as the grades they were trusted to assign honestly are deemed to be inaccurate by a state-designed excel spreadsheet. And, it will manifest itself in an overwhelming and paralysing feeling of shock, as students open envelopes or emails to find a progress-shattering result that cannot be appealed.

A millennium ago, or rather in March, teachers and students were told not to worry. The government had a plan, and it was substantive. Not only is the plan not substantive, it simply doesn’t exist. There is no appeals process, no transparency on the algorithm itself, no idea whom it discriminates positively or negatively, and clearly no trust or faith in teachers — who have been made hostages and scapegoats to a process in which their say may inevitably mean nothing. Quite frankly, there is no trust in Ofqual to accurately award a single grade.

Ofqual’s half-hearted effort to produce half-baked measures at the direction of a government that deals in half-truths, will inevitably mean half the reward for double the work of an entire year group of students. After all, besides the dead, the young will suffer from this pandemic the most. And not even our grades are immune.