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Ofqual board members ‘want to ditch their own A-level algorithm’

Examination body Ofqual has blamed the government for the chaos over A-level results, with a leading member claiming ‘policy changes every 12 hours’ led to the debacle. 

Professor Tina Isaacs, who sits on Ofqual’s advisory group, told BBC Breakfast: ‘Ofqual’s role is to carry out Government policy. And when policy shifts every 12 to 24 hours, Ofqual then has to deal with it as best as it can.

‘Hence the changes to the appeals process, which now Ofqual has taken off the board so that it can give as much consideration to it as possible given the timeframe.’ 

It comes as some board members of the body revealed they want to get rid of the controversial A-level algorithm that led to almost 40 per cent of grades being downgraded.

Critics have complained the algorithm used by Ofqual penalised pupils in schools in more disadvantaged areas, while benefiting those in private schools.

Some board members now believe the algorithm had resulted in a ‘haemorrhaging’ of public trust in the results, and reverting to teacher assessments – as the Scottish government had done – may be the ‘least bad option’.

Boris Johnson is now under pressure to intervene to end the deepening A-levels crisis in England, amid growing anger among pupils and teachers and warnings of unrest among Tory MPs.   

A-level students hold a sit in protest at the Department for Education over the results fiasco

A-level students hold a sit in protest at the Department for Education over the results fiasco

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has come under fire for the government’s A-level algorithm – with even some Ofqual board members criticising it

Young demonstrators lofted banners and placards with pictures of Gavin Williamson on them, calling for the education secretary to be sacked in Parliament Square, central London, yesterday

Young demonstrators lofted banners and placards with pictures of Gavin Williamson on them, calling for the education secretary to be sacked in Parliament Square, central London, yesterday

The government and regulator Ofqual need to ‘claw back’ public confidence after A-level results day, Professor Isaacs added.

‘Right now what’s happening is the public is losing confidence in the system,’ she told BBC Breakfast.

‘And it is up to Ofqual, which I know is working very hard, it’s up to Ofqual and especially the Government to try to put in place something that will claw back some of that public confidence. I’m afraid it will not be able to claw back all of it.’

Asked if she was concerned that GCSE results day on Thursday could lead to public confidence worsening, she replied: ‘I’m very concerned indeed.’

Grammar school headteachers have also criticised the algorithm, while a new analysis revealed that grades awarded in sixth form colleges this year fell below the average of the last three years in England

Will GCSE results be delayed TWO WEEKS? Top Tories call on Boris Johnson to postpone marks due out this Thursday 

Boris Johnson was last night facing calls to delay this week’s GCSE results as the exam fiasco worsened.

He is facing growing anger from his own party over the ‘huge mess’ surrounding the A-level results of millions of teenagers.

Lord Baker, who introduced the GCSE system, said Thursday’s results announcement should be delayed by two weeks to allow the grades to be revised.

It is feared that millions of pupils could see their scores downgraded by a government algorithm used to allocate marks after exams were cancelled due to coronavirus.

Lord Baker described the algorithm as flawed and accused ministers of presiding over a system that had already produced ‘hundreds of thousands of unfair and barely explicable downgrades’. 

He added: ‘If you are in a hole, stop digging.’

Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons education committee, also conceded a delay might be necessary.

‘Unless they have fair appeals and unless [exams regulator] Ofqual make clear their model won’t disadvantage unfairly, then perhaps this is one route they may need to consider,’ said the Conservative MP.

Dr Mark Fenton, chief executive of the Grammar School Heads Association, told the BBC that ‘a great injustice has been done’ with ‘utterly baffling’ results for some students.

He said the ‘only fair outcome’ available would be to revert to the grades recommended by teachers and for the limit of 5% extra university places in England to be lifted.

According to the BBC, research from the Sixth Form Colleges Association has revealed this year’s sixth form A-level grades are below the average of the last three years in England – in some cases falling 20% lower than similar historic performances. 

Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said the algorithm-awarded A-level grades should be abandoned, with teacher assessments or mocks used instead.

‘No algorithm is going to sort our problem out, it’s a human issue,’ he told LBC Radio.

He said concerns about ‘grade inflation’ could be dealt with by accepting that 2020 would not be used as a benchmark for future years because some of the grades would have been ‘overcooked’ by teachers.

‘I think we’re left with the very simple position we have to go pretty much with the assessments or the mocks – and/or the mocks, you could do both depending when the assessments were done – and then get it over and done with.

‘The idea that you have an algorithm to figure out what they might have done in an exam is really impossible and I think that’s where the big mistakes will be made.’

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called on the Prime Minister to take ‘personal responsibility’ for fixing the issue, accusing him of having been ‘invisible’ throughout the turmoil.

The Conservative former education secretary Lord Baker of Dorking urged ministers to delay the publication of GCSE results, due this week, until the problems with A-levels had been resolved.

Lord Baker, who introduced the GCSE system, said Thursday’s results announcement should be delayed by two weeks to allow the grades to be revised. 

Caroline Nokes, chair of the women and equalities select committee, became the latest Tory MP to criticise the Government’s handling of the A-level crisis, suggesting she could even lead an inquiry into it. 

She tweeted that the algorithm problems had ‘exclusively impacted young people and of course age is a protected characteristic’, adding that as chair of the committee she was ‘keen to support’ any inquiry.

Labour’s Shadow education secretary Kate Green said the situation surrounding A-level results is ‘disgraceful’ and called on the Government to ‘go the extra mile’ to protect young people’s futures.

Speaking on ITV’s Good Morning Britain this morning, Ms Green said universities should be ‘flexible to accommodate the horrors that these young people are going through through no fault of their own’.

She added: ‘At the same time, we do know that universities have capacity, or certainly had at the time that the A-level results came out, partly because, of course, the Government has made it so much more difficult for international students to come to the UK.

‘But they need to know it, they need planning time. And, of course, universities can’t sit around waiting forever.

‘Those places are now filling up and so the Government just needs to make it absolutely clear on what basis results are being awarded to A-level students, what grades they got, it has got to be fair to those young people and then universities can fill up the places that continue to exist and students can get on with their lives.’

Ms Green said the Government has ‘never really put young people first’.

She told GMB: ‘I think it is vital that we give these young people the very best chance in life and use the teacher assessment grades this year.’

Students called for 'justice for state schools' amid the ongoing argument about the postcode lottery in getting a good grade

Students called for ‘justice for state schools’ amid the ongoing argument about the postcode lottery in getting a good grade

Asked whether GCSE results day should be delayed, Ms Green told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘The Government need to make progress on this, tell us what they’re doing, tell us when they’re going to be able to give us absolute assurance that this algorithm is reliable or that they’ve found an alternative way of grading students that is reliable, and this cannot be allowed to drag on – these young people are desperate to know about their futures.’

Conservative MPs slam algorith amid A-level exam chaos

Boris Johnson has come under pressure to intervene to end the deepening A-levels crisis in England, amid growing anger among pupils, teachers and Tory MPs. 

Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said the algorithm-awarded A-level grades should be abandoned, with teacher assessments or mocks used instead.

‘No algorithm is going to sort our problem out, it’s a human issue,’ he told LBC Radio.

He said concerns about ‘grade inflation’ could be dealt with by accepting that 2020 would not be used as a benchmark for future years because some of the grades would have been ‘overcooked’ by teachers.

‘I think we’re left with the very simple position we have to go pretty much with the assessments or the mocks – and/or the mocks, you could do both depending when the assessments were done – and then get it over and done with.

‘The idea that you have an algorithm to figure out what they might have done in an exam is really impossible and I think that’s where the big mistakes will be made.’

The Conservative former education secretary Lord Baker of Dorking urged ministers to delay the publication of GCSE results, due this week, until the problems with A-levels had been resolved.

Lord Baker, who introduced the GCSE system, said Thursday’s results announcement should be delayed by two weeks to allow the grades to be revised. 

Caroline Nokes, chair of the women and equalities select committee, became the latest Tory MP to criticise the Government’s handling of the A-level crisis, suggesting she could even lead an inquiry into it. 

She tweeted that the algorithm problems had ‘exclusively impacted young people and of course age is a protected characteristic’, adding that as chair of the committee she was ‘keen to support’ any inquiry.

Tory Sir Robert Syms said deciding A-level results by the algorithm is ‘more unfair’ than awarding students their teacher-assessed grades.

Sir Robert told Times Radio: ‘Either you go to the simplest solution, which is to go to teacher assessment, CAG, or you have a very generous and broad-based appeal system that takes people well up and above the 2% grade inflation, 4 or 5% up, so that many people get grades given back.’

He added: ‘My concern, though, is that they are going to get every school appealing because there is no cost to it, because the Government is carrying the cost and there’s 280,000 students who have been downgraded.

‘I assume every one of them will want to go and appeal their grade, and can this be done in a week or two weeks? I’m doubtful about that.

‘I fear what will happen with the Government is that having been caught out by the algorithm, which of course the Government themselves didn’t design, we now have a big problem… a scandal over slow appeals or an inability to deliver appeals.

‘I come back to the point that if the Government want to get out of this problem, the simplest solution is to accept grade inflation. Because I think the way they’ve done it with the algorithm, Ofqual, is I think more unfair than having grade inflation.’

Sir Robert added that he would be ‘happy’ for GCSE students to be awarded their teacher-assessed grades and that ‘most Conservative MPs would be’.

On allowing students to receive their teacher-assessed grades, she added: ‘I recognise that it is not perfect, you can back that up, of course, with an appeals system which can include looking at the mock results if they’re available and if they’re felt to be robust.

‘I think in these exceptional circumstances that these students are in this year, the fact that their education has already been so disrupted, we have said teacher-assessed grades should be the basis for the A-level results.

‘It may be that if there’s no other fair method of determining the GCSE results, we’ll have to look at that, keep that option on the table for them too.’

Former Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw said: ‘This has been a terrible farce… it is no laughing matter because it has affected thousands of young people whose expectations have been dashed and whose life chances have been affected.

‘This is a terrible, terrible situation and I have to say Ofqual have been almost invisible while all of this has been going on.

‘Whoever is in charge, the chief executive and chair, should have been much more high profile and much more visible in explaining to the sector, explaining to head teachers where they are, what has gone wrong and what they intend to do to put it right.’

He added: ‘Ofqual have got to get their act together and be much more visible.’ 

Sir Michael said that ‘ultimately it is the politicians who have to take responsibility’.

He said: ‘There has to be political responsibility like all things, at the end of the day somebody has to carry the can and the politicians, the political leaders have to carry the can.

‘The great danger for Gavin Williamson at the moment is he is losing confidence – he is losing the confidence of head teachers around the country who have seen this happen.

‘He hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory over the pandemic period with all sorts of changes of direction, saying that primary schools would be open when they obviously couldn’t be under the social distancing rules, saying that every poor child would receive a laptop and obviously that didn’t happen, the school meal voucher system wasn’t working.

‘He is losing the dressing room, if you like.’

Tory former minister Stephen Hammond called the A-level results grading system and appeals process ‘a shambles’.

Speaking about the appeals process, Mr Hammond, the MP for Wimbledon, told Sky News: ‘So it looks unfortunately like it’s developed … gone very rapidly from some clarity into a shambles.

‘And I think what is clear now is that, by the end of today, there needs to be an appeals process that is fair, resolves matters quickly and is simple and transparent to understand so that we can help all those people who feel distressed, frustrated by the grades they’ve been given.’

Tory Sir Robert Syms said deciding A-level results by the algorithm is ‘more unfair’ than awarding students their teacher-assessed grades.

Sir Robert told Times Radio: ‘Either you go to the simplest solution, which is to go to teacher assessment, CAG, or you have a very generous and broad-based appeal system that takes people well up and above the 2% grade inflation, 4 or 5% up, so that many people get grades given back.’

He added: ‘My concern, though, is that they are going to get every school appealing because there is no cost to it, because the Government is carrying the cost and there’s 280,000 students who have been downgraded.

‘I assume every one of them will want to go and appeal their grade, and can this be done in a week or two weeks? I’m doubtful about that.

‘I fear what will happen with the Government is that having been caught out by the algorithm, which of course the Government themselves didn’t design, we now have a big problem… a scandal over slow appeals or an inability to deliver appeals.

‘I come back to the point that if the Government want to get out of this problem, the simplest solution is to accept grade inflation. Because I think the way they’ve done it with the algorithm, Ofqual, is I think more unfair than having grade inflation.’

Sir Robert added that he would be ‘happy’ for GCSE students to be awarded their teacher-assessed grades and that ‘most Conservative MPs would be’.

Protesters take part in a peaceful demonstration in Parliament Square, central London, in response to the downgrading of A-level results on Thursday

The last demand of today's protest was for 'all universities to honour more offers and to allow the time for the appeal process system to be completed'

The last demand of today’s protest was for ‘all universities to honour more offers and to allow the time for the appeal process system to be completed’

He added: ‘A number of these students have been working since March very hard, not only in preparation for if exams had happened but still doing coursework, and a lot of that would be a very good indication of their true ability.

‘And what the appeal process should do is take into every account these young people are not an exam board number, they are real people who deserve fairness and a chance to have their futures put in a solid position very quickly.’

Northern Ireland students to be awarded GCSE grades based on teacher predictions and NOT through mathematical model

GCSE students in Northern Ireland are to be awarded the grades predicted by their teachers, Stormont’s Education Minister has announced.

Just days before the results are published on Thursday, Peter Weir has scrapped a plan that would have had grades calculated using a mathematical model that took into account the past performance of schools.

The major policy shift comes amid a raging controversy in Northern Ireland about the system used to allocate A-level grades.

The move affects grades issued by Northern Ireland exams body, the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA).

CCEA accounts for 97% of all GCSEs taken in the region. Students who were due to sit GCSEs set by awarding bodies in England or Wales will still be graded according to the approach taken by those organisations.

The Stormont Assembly is set to be recalled from summer recess to debate the furore caused by the standardisation formula used for A-levels.

More than a third of A-level grades issued last Thursday were lower than teacher estimates.

On Ofqual, Mr Hammond said: ‘This is not the actions of a body that seems to know what it is doing.’

GCSE results are due to be released this week, with the government algorithm used to calculate millions of results, leading to fears the A-level crisis could be repeated on an even larger scale.

Students in Northern Ireland are to be awarded the grades predicted by their teachers, Stormont’s Education Minister has announced.

Just days before the results are published on Thursday, Peter Weir has scrapped a plan that would have had grades calculated using a mathematical model that took into account the past performance of schools.

However, the plan to use a mathematical model remains the same in the UK, despite the furore caused by using an algorithm for A-levels. 

Mr Johnson had been expected to be in Scotland this week on a camping holiday with his fiancee, Carrie Symonds, and their baby son Wilfred.

But with Labour demanding he hold a press conference to explain how he intends to right the ‘historic injustice’ suffered by pupils who had had their grades marked down, Downing Street was unable to say whether the trip would go ahead.

The Department for Education (DfE) has said it is continuing to work with the regulator Ofqual to build as much ‘fairness into the appeals process as possible’ to help what it described as the ‘most difficult cases’.

‘Ofqual continues to consider how to best deliver the appeals process to give schools and pupils the clarity they need,’ a DfE spokesman said in a statement issued late on Sunday.

However the position was not helped by the decision of the exams regulator to issue guidance over the weekend on students using the results of mock exams as the basis for an appeal, only to withdraw it hours later.

No explanation was given for the move, although Labour said that it undermined assurances given to pupils by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson about the appeals process.

Mr Williamson last week gave a ‘triple-lock’ commitment that pupils could use the highest result out of their teacher’s predicted grade, their mock exam, or sitting an actual exam in the autumn.

But the Ofqual guidance said if the mock result was higher than the teacher’s prediction, it was the teacher’s prediction that would count.

In a further setback for the Education Secretary, some Ofqual members have also now called for the algorithm to be ditched.  

Placards saying 'give me back my grades' and 'downgrade Williamson, not students' were waved as students and parents packed out Parliament Square

Placards saying ‘give me back my grades’ and ‘downgrade Williamson, not students’ were waved as students and parents packed out Parliament Square

The London protesters (pictured), replicated in Edinburgh and Cardiff, were calling for the government to 'recognise the disproportionality of grades within disadvantaged areas and its detrimental impact within society'

The London protesters (pictured), replicated in Edinburgh and Cardiff, were calling for the government to ‘recognise the disproportionality of grades within disadvantaged areas and its detrimental impact within society’

One protester stands with her homemade sign with a picture of the Prime Minister, branding him a 'classist' and saying: 'Britain deserves better'

One protester stands with her homemade sign with a picture of the Prime Minister, branding him a ‘classist’ and saying: ‘Britain deserves better’

Mr Williamson has consistently argued moderation was essential to prevent ‘rampant grade inflation’ after actual exams were cancelled amid the coronavirus crisis, insisting there can be no U-turn.

However critics have complained the algorithm used by Ofqual to make the adjustments had penalised pupils in schools in more disadvantaged areas, while benefiting those in private schools. 

Those concerns are likely to strengthen the hands of teaching unions who are pressing for teacher assessments as the only fair way forward.

In all, almost 40% of all A-level grades in England were marked down as a result of the standardisation process, and ministers are now braced for another backlash when the GCSE results – which are moderated using the same algorithm – are released on Thursday. 

The former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable, who served in coalition with the Conservatives under David Cameron, warned the issue would cause the Government ‘lasting harm’.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s The Westminster Hour he said one ‘act of ill will’ in particular could rebound on ministers.

‘The Royal Statistical Society offered help to try and improve this algorithm, to make it more genuine and realistic,’ he said.

‘And the help was refused because the statisticians were not willing to sign a gagging clause promising not to reveal what they found.

‘That kind of dishonesty in the background really doesn’t help the smell around this whole thing.’


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