A-levels: Students can expect a chaotic year of unexpected results

15 August 2016
Posted by Heidi Salmons

The Telegraph, 15.08.16, it is that time of year, the last week before A-level Results Day, when we should all be enjoying what remains of the summer break. After all, nothing more can be done writes Peter Hamilton, headmaster of The Haberdashers’ Aske’s School of Boys’ School and chair of the HMC Academic Policy Committee and Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT).

For many, the last two weeks of August will see a fitting end to years of study, bringing richly deserved grades and much coveted university places. But for too many, for students, parents and teachers alike, Results Day brings considerable distress if all-important grades are missed.

Much has been said, this year as last, about the quality of marking or not, about the quality of assessment, about new exam reforms, about exam board processes, about the lack of A*s in modern foreign language A-levels and about the creaking and unfair system of appeals against exam grades known as enquiries about results.

The exams landscape in which we operate is one in which Ofqual understandably thinks that all is well.  But those who teach in schools and colleges think that, on the contrary, all is not well.

What is sure enough though, is that we should not be surprised if we experience an even more chaotic year than ever in terms of unexpected results, and this could prove uniquely unfair to those pupils with suspect exam grades.

Why? Simply put, fundamental flaws in the results system have not been adequately addressed by the regulator. Indeed, this year it has been made even harder to appeal against an unfair grade.

Forget the fact that appeals nearly always centre around whether exam board procedures have been followed, now there is the additional and unhelpful concept of a ‘reasonable’ mark, rather than an accurate one.

Added to this, during 2016-2019 we will see the marking and appeals system facing the additional strain of structural reform to examinations in all A-level subjects. As reported recently, school leaders face the challenge of keeping keep up with this year’s changes to how students can seek reviews of their marks - new procedures that were announced in May and were changed again just as most schools were breaking up in July at the end of a long summer term.

From where we sit it is simply unreasonable and unfair to operate in this way and we would like to help the new Chief Regulator address this legacy.

Across all schools and colleges, all that students, teachers and parents want is an accurate mark, a correct grade and a fair, transparent examination system. If only Ofqual had explored further their own solution of double-blind re-marks (which they don’t deny would improve things), then perhaps we would all not be gearing up wearily for another annual round of appeals.

And for the record, the only reason schools and colleges appeal marks and grades is because they feel and they know that an injustice has been done.  That said, we hope we are mistaken and see a perfect summer of results in 2016.

However, if all goes wrong in your family on Results Day, don’t panic, as things have a habit of sorting themselves out if tackled robustly. More specifically we would advise:

  1. Contacting the relevant university admissions office as soon as possible. Universities may be flexible if results are not as expected, so it’s important to start that conversation as soon as possible;
  2. Accessing the scripts in question to determine what type of rogue result this might be, but only with the full support of your school or college;
  3. Preparing for a long (in many cases) paper-driven process of appeal.

To check out the most up-to-date description of how exam boards must respond to enquiries and appeals you need to access the following rather obscure government web page. The websites of the individual exam boards also provide details of how each conducts the review requests and appeals that it receives.

And when the dust settles, perhaps 2016/17 will indeed be the academic year when all goes well. Perhaps, too, it will be the academic year when we see all exam boards moving to the same systems, same deadlines, same forms, same prices.  And perhaps, finally, this may be the academic year where schools and colleges will see stability rather than more ill-thought out change to our public examinations.

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