Dr Simon Hyde
HMC General Secretary
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It is disappointing, but perhaps inevitable that some of the papers have again run stories about independent schools allegedly manipulating results to improve students’ exam grades in 2020 and 2021. Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s shadow education secretary, stated “some private schools are gaming the system” leading to “a yawning attainment gap between private and state school students”, which in turn apparently justifies Labour’s plan to “end tax breaks for private schools to fund a brilliant state education for every child.”
The Chair of the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon, appears to have accepted much of this analysis commenting: “the independent sector milked the school-assessed grade system for all it was worth.”
These are serious allegations. They suggest that heads and teachers in some of the country’s finest schools essentially cheated. The Sunday Times went so far as to identify a list of ‘top offenders’, whilst Phil Beadle in the Guardian speculated that the results were the product of a less robust inspection regime and parental pressure. “It’s unsurprising,” he concludes, “that institutions that exist to provide unfair advantage to the already privileged will, when given the chance, behave in a manner that perpetuates this inequality.”
Whilst integrity might sometimes be a debatable virtue in the world of politics, for those nurturing our young people it is indispensable, so the recent attacks on the independent sector must be addressed.
The nineteenth-century Prime Minister George Canning wrote, “I can prove anything by statistics except the truth.’ I suspect what he meant was that the truth is often complex and that statistics can distort as easily as they can illuminate. A recent blog by the respected FFT Education Datalab (Did independent schools really “fiddle” their A-Level grades more than other schools in 2021? – FFT Education Datalab) illustrates the point perfectly showing the difference between absolute and relative changes in results over the pandemic period. It is a point made on this blog two years ago (Lies, damned lies and statistics – Dr Simon Hyde).
But what is the truth? The first comment to make is that the results from 2020 and 2021 cannot and should not be directly compared with those achieved by pupils in 2022. Even comparisons with 2019, the last year of exams before the pandemic, are inadvisable because the standard for 2022 established by the regulator Ofqual was more generous than 2019. This widely welcomed decision to support young people who have faced massive disruption to their education and their lives, should itself tell us something of what has been happening over the last few years as schools, teachers and our assessment system have adapted to cope with the pandemic.
Despite warnings from Ofqual, educational associations and unions, that comparisons are invalid and the better results in 2020 and 2021 were the product of a fundamentally different system of assessment, there remains for some the question of why results in independent schools increased more than those in the state sector. It is not an unreasonable question, even if some of the answers have been unreasonable in my view.
I think the answer is relatively straightforward and I wrote about it in 2020, though it’s probably worth repeating. In the two pandemic years, teachers and heads in all schools did what they could to support their students at a time of national crisis. Some schools moved rapidly to online teaching, which the more fortunate students were able to take full advantage of. Others fell behind as their schools and domestic circumstances differed and they struggled to cope.
It was predictable that this uneven playing field would lead to a widening in the attainment gap between students at independent schools and those in the state sector. But it is not the only reason.
In 2020, 2021 and 2022, schools across the sector and then Ofqual itself have given students on the borderline between grades ‘the benefit of the doubt’. For years, grade predictions for universities have routinely been higher than actual grades (significantly so if we take the latest figures from UCAS). Predictions have been the most likely best fit for students indicating what they can achieve rather than what they will. With the levelling factor and unpredictability of examinations removed, and with teachers assessing the work of their students, whom they know best, everyone knew, or should have known, that grades and results would improve.
The consequences of giving students the benefit of the doubt, however, works differently in different schools depending upon their make-up. Schools with a higher proportion of high achieving students will see greater ‘inflation’ in top grades. Those with a more normal distribution will see a different pattern.
What all commentators acknowledge is on average, in ‘normal times’, students in independent schools outperform students in state schools. Partly as a result, there have been proportionately more students on the crucial top-grade boundaries and hence more that would benefit (at these grades) from the generosity teachers were invited to show during the pandemic. One should not therefore be surprised by greater apparent ‘inflation’ in top grades at both GCSE and A level in independent schools. It was not the product of ‘fiddling’, ‘gaming’ or ‘cheating’ by professional teachers and school leaders. Rather it is hardwired into our high-stakes assessment system, whether one likes it or not.
Is this something that we should worry about? Well, it depends on your point of view. Dame Glenys Stacey told us last year that overall and in normal times GCSE and A level grades are reliable one grade either way. Seen from this perspective, teachers and school leaders, I suspect, didn’t do too bad a job across either sector during the pandemic. I continue to believe that integrity is a currency our schools (independent and state) would not debase, and I have to confess that I remain a little suspicious of the motives of those who might suggest otherwise. Especially those drawing conclusions before any appeals processes will have been finalised.