The unappealing question of exam appeals…

The unappealing question of exam appeals... - blog by Kate Howell, HMC Director of Education

Half-term week provided a much-needed break from on-screen learning for pupils, and for parents and teachers who have been valiantly battling to support remote teaching and learning. This is a concept which just this time last year had not been considered by many, other than a few children who were perhaps required by exceptional circumstance to study remotely. Now the majority of children in the UK are fully, or at least mostly, au fait with Teams/Zoom/Google Classroom and other such platforms which have thankfully facilitated some degree of learning at home. The new start to the second half of the Spring term promises much. Sunnier, warmer days, a degree of release from the interminable national lockdown, a return to classrooms, and… the government’s announcement of the outcomes of the public consultation into summer 2021 assessment for pupils in key stages 4 and 5. Like many others, I’m sure, I have been pondering the issue of appeals.

Currently it seems to be the view of Ofqual and the exam boards that with grades determined again this year by teachers, it should be to schools and colleges that pupils who are dissatisfied with their grade should appeal. Centres, unsurprisingly, point out that such a scenario would set them at odds with their charges. It risks jeopardising relationships and may potentially undermine professional judgements. Whilst it may be true to say that if the assessment process is robust, transparent and well-designed, there should be a much-reduced requirement for an appeals process, there still has to be one, and there are surely lessons to be learned from last year.

Here are some questions I hope will be addressed in the announcement when it comes. First, it would help centres enormously if the various exam boards’ approaches to appeals are consistent and overseen by Ofqual. To ensure teachers can take a break, appeals should not require teachers and Heads of Centres’ attention in the second half of July. To reduce the administrative burden on schools, we need a light-touch appeals process.

So, who and what should the appeals process involve? (i.e. what additional evidence should be required to support an appeal, and who should be responsible for gathering it?). Who should manage the appeals process – schools or exam boards? On what basis should pupils be able to appeal their grade? Should a school have the right to appeal an appeal? (i.e. if a board upholds a candidate’s appeal, should the school be given the opportunity to dispute this before a final decision is confirmed to the candidate?) When should the appeals process run from? Should it be time-limited? Should there be a stated end-date by when all appeals from summer 2021 must have been completed and outcomes confirmed? If so, what should the date be? Should grades, when they are appealed, be able to go down as well as up? If yes, should this be for the appellant only (i.e. not the whole cohort)? How should appeals from private candidates be handled?

Finally, we know that even now, six months after the awarding process of summer 2020, and six months after the start of the 2020-2021 academic year, there remain appeals cases which have yet to be resolved. For summer 2021, shouldn’t there be a stated end-date by when all appeals must have been completed and outcomes confirmed? If the end date were to be the last day of the Autumn term (17th December for most state schools) this would ensure everyone can start the new year, 2022, hopefully Covid-free and on a firm footing.