Punished for being remarkable – A level results, 2020

“It wasn’t too bad Miss!”

That’s the kind of feedback we want from our A level students after a terminal exam. It’s a sign they’ve fulfilled their potential, the breadth and depth of which we know intimately by now. Mercifully, it’s also what we hear most of the time, or words to that effect, because we have prepared our students thoroughly and exams are not designed to catch candidates out. 

But things can go wrong. I remember Sophie’s self-reproach. “I completely screwed up the Middlemarch question” she sobbed. “I spent more time retelling the story than I did answering the bloody question …. Idiot!” 

And she was right: I had predicted an A for Sophie, but she was awarded a B. Not the end of the world, but not a true reflection of her ability either.

We do know our students very well, as A level teachers. The teacher-student ratio is lower here than at GCSE, there’s more lesson time normally, as well as more discussion and one-to-one coaching between lessons, for those who want it. 

Many seek out that extra guidance because the stakes are so high; A level results open doors … transform life chances when we are talking about the kid from the impoverished estate who gets into the prestigious university. There can be no greater reward in teaching than to have played a part in such individual triumphs.

But last Thursday, we discovered that transformative outcomes were the very ones that Ofqual took away. The fact that the young people who achieved the most, by overcoming the odds stacked against them, should be cut down to statistically regular size by an unknowing standardisation process is monstrously unfair. They have been punished for being remarkable.

Meanwhile, the same exercise ensured that privately educated candidates were, by and large, ushered through to the next gold-plated step of their educational journeys. Lewis Goodall, policy editor for Newsnight, spent yesterday with university admissions, currently in chaos. He tweeted, “Some places are taken up which would normally be free: by those from private schools who would normally fail to get the grades.” 

Focusing on A grades, here’s how School’s Week illustrated the ‘private school boost’:

Even privately educated candidates can have a bad day. In 2020, however, remarkably few of them did and the regulator was evidently perfectly comfortable with that. If ever there was a manifestation of the social mobility issue that blights this country, where destiny is so often dictated by birth, you can find it in their bland acceptance of this glaring inequality.

There is or course a way to right all of this intolerable injustice – but it’s not through the ‘triple lock.’ Mock exam results? Ministers, please listen to the arguments against. Take note of the rarest of all things that now exists within our sometimes bitterly divided educational community; universal condemnation of a patently unfair and unworkable idea. As for autumn exams – the young people we are concerned about here don’t have access to private tutors – they have had no teaching for a full six months.  

The Scottish and more recently the Northern Irish solution is the fairest available. Teachers have submitted their carefully considered Centre Assessment Grades (CAGs) already, and these must now be used to correct every egregious wrong. Of course, there will always be concern about the shape of the grade distribution curve for those who care more about statistical regularity year on year than they do about justice for individuals – but the individual grades should be trusted. Employers, universities should have confidence in them – because they stand on something real; the sure ground of professional judgement, albeit repeatedly talked down by politicians, punters and even, sadly, from within the profession itself.

There is nothing capricious about the CAGs, unlike the terminal exam. And that is why CAG grades are higher this year than actual results in previous years, not because of the unprofessional ‘inflation’ of grades. Former Gove adviser Sam Freedman understands this, tweeting:

Imagine I’m a maths teacher in a normal year and I have 5 pupils who I know are capable of getting an A. They sit the exam and only 3 get an A, for whatever reason, e.g. a tough question they weren’t prepared for etc. Now this year I have to give an assessed grade for those 5. What do I do – well I know they are all capable of an A so I put them down as an A. That happens across the system so overall now there are far more students predicted an A than in a normal exam year. 

In essence, nobody did a Sophie this year, until Ofqual stepped in, that is. Candidates achieved what they were capable of achieving. No-one experienced a limbic hijack or imploded through exam-based anxiety, suffered a bereavement or watched their mother beaten up the night before the last exam. There was no hay-fever, no missing of the 10 mark question. All students in our imaginary exam hall were able to fulfil their non-imaginary, their very real potential. 

Gavin Williamson, you must now return to them what Ofqual has taken away. The young people of 2020 deserve their CAGs; what they do not deserve, on top of future prospects already ravaged by Covid-19, is this most callous injustice. 


Published by Mary Meredith

Working in schools for over 20 years, I've been a Head of English, a SENCO and a deputy headteacher. I'm currently Head of Inclusion at Lincolnshire County Council. I am a sucker for the underdog. Always have been, always will be.

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