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What a difference a week makes

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen…”
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin)

So… first came the cancellation of this summer’s public examinations in all forms. We were all assured that there would be a robust and fair system (fair to this year’s pupils, as well as those from other years) in place for the awarding of grades. The algorithm was still to be decided, but it would be consulted upon and shared. And it would place appropriate weighting on the professional judgement of teachers.

Nobody envied the government, Ofqual and other awarding organisations the mammoth and unprecedented (to use 2020’s favourite word) task of finding such a system, the Holy Grail. We waited. Deadlines came and passed. At the eleventh hour, news came through about how we should produce “Centre Assessed Grades” – or ‘CAGs’ – and a pupil ranking in as fair a way as possible (this latter being a difficult task which had never before been asked of teachers and schools). Schools worked like billy-o to get as much meaningful and robust information together as possible, despite shifting goalposts. Flying somewhat blind, we held the hands of our Year 11 and Year 13 pupils as best we could, whilst trying to deliver both remote and on-site learning for all other pupils in our schools.

Fast forward to mid-August, and the eagerly – if somewhat intrepidly – awaited A level results day. At BGS and a number of other schools, the volatility of the IB Diploma results – at the individual level, rather than the cohort level – that had come out to global outcry in July, instilled in us a sense of realism. Still no algorithm. We got wind, though, that CAGs would not be used in larger cohorts, would be used exclusively in smaller cohorts, and something in between for cohorts, well, in between. Unexpected, and surely likely to bake in a number of systematic biases?

36 hours to go. The Secretary of State for Education explained his new “triple lock”: for pupils who were unsatisfied with their algorithmically-awarded grades, the hitherto very limited appeals process would be widened to allow them to receive their mock exam grade where it had been higher. Bombshell. No one seemed as surprised as Ofqual, as they saw their system undermined in one fell swoop, whilst suddenly having the added task of devising a new Appeals process.

Thursday 13 August. R-day. At a whole-cohort level, our results were strong, if a little down on what we had been led to expect (the three-year average). No way, realistically, of checking the sense of the results, as the algorithm was finally published as a document running to over three hundred pages. Much worse than that though, a number of our pupils and thousands nationally had received results which were not at all a fair reflection of what they would have gone on to achieve. In addition to the clear and obvious dejection they felt, their next steps – university, apprenticeships, employment – were in the balance because the “computer said no”. It was difficult to know what to say to them. We just had to be there for them. If BGS was anything to go by, the reactions of their friends who had not suffered such disappointment – sensitive, empathetic, caring – was humbling, a story no doubt repeated across the land.

As an aside, at BGS we took the decision that our usual website news story on results should focus only on congratulating all of our pupils for their resilience, their hard work and their all-round contribution to BGS over their years with us. To us, this was a no-brainer. These pupils had faced the most difficult and unique set of circumstances that any group of leavers had faced in decades. They had not sat exams, they had done everything else asked of them, and now they had been given results that, while for most had helped them to their next destination, for some had caused heartbreak through no fault of theirs. With the majority of results having been determined by an algorithm based on previous cohort outcomes, it felt wrong to celebrate headline statistics. We were, therefore, surprised to see the number of schools who, nonetheless, celebrated such statistics as they might in any other year. It was clear, moreover, that with the expanded Appeals process still to be finalised, such statistics were still likely to change significantly (which has been borne out since).

Ah, yes…that Appeals process. At least there was the recourse to mock grades through the triple lock, no? Now we just needed to know what constituted a valid mock, given the sheer variety contained in that word across different schools – in terms of timing of the exams in the school year, their length, syllabus coverage, preparation time, grading and more. We gave our pupils their CAGs and their mock grades alongside their awarded grades, so that they could place it all in context, and be ready to go with appeals once the process had been announced. And on Saturday, at 3pm, there it was on the Ofqual website. Clarification that anything that any reasonable school would refer to as a mock exam (and other work for those pupils who had not sat mocks) would be allowed. Cue schools all over the country jumping into furious action to assess next steps.

Seven hours. It was up just seven hours, before the guidance was taken down with the briefest of statements that it was now “under review”. Incredulity. Twitter meltdown. We wrote to our pupils to tell them they did not deserve this, and that we would be there to help them through it all. Though the majority were showing magnificent resilience and stoicism, it was simply not fair on them. The Secretary of State had already said, in the face of growing public hostility, that there would be no U-turn – presumably originally a B-turn (thank you @RichardOsman) – as there had been in Scotland, to allow Centre Assessed Grades to now stand. So, all we had to do for our pupils, presumably, was be poised and ready on Monday for the mock-based appeal guidance to be re-instated in some form.

Monday arrived. We waited. And waited. In the early afternoon, we heard there would be an announcement at 4pm. And then, right on cue (well a few minutes early, actually), Roger Taylor of Ofqual released a statement on behalf of the regulator, saying sorry and confirming that CAGs would now stand wherever they were higher than the previously awarded grade. However we had got to this point, whatever the distress so far caused, whatever the worries about overall grade distributions and so on, this was an immense, welcome and overdue relief for the vast majority of those pupils who had been unfairly downgraded.

As I write this, that moment feels like it happened weeks ago. It happened 21 hours ago. Most of the events I’ve touched upon above have happened in the last week. Lenin was right.

We have ended up with the most reasonable outcome given the events described. But there is still a huge amount to be worked on and worked out. The award of Centre Assessed Grades (unhelpfully referred to in the majority of the press as Teacher Grades or Predictions) has provided great relief to those who had been wronged by the algorithm. But that’s not the end of it, as problems have now been pushed onto schools and universities. Schools are now being blamed by some pupils and parents when CAGs, which we have not been allowed to share until the day of results, are not as high as they wanted or expected. This, despite the hours of agonising that went into them, when they were only ever meant to be part of the picture, not the whole thing. Universities, having allocated most or all of their places before and since results days are having to make space for significantly more students who have now met their offers, a very difficult prospect in these COVID-limited times. In order for this to occur, the government has lifted the cap on extra places that universities are allowed to award this year (a cap introduced to stop the bigger universities filling the shortfall of overseas students with more home students, which would have had – and now likely will have – a detrimental effect on the intake of the smaller universities). And if they cannot offer spaces on their already-full courses to the students who now have the grades to meet their offers, they will likely hold places over for them to next year, resulting in thousands of unplanned gap years and creating further competition for places for the 2021 cohort, who are already nervous about what next year will bring. At least the pain of the last week means that for our GCSE cohorts this year, there is more certainty now.

It is a truism that it is easier to knock down than to build up. This has been an immensely difficult period for everyone, and as above, I do not envy those who were entrusted with devising and implementing a fair and robust system for grading, even though I remain confident that it could all have been done much better. We all live and learn. It is the pupils themselves who have suffered most – even those who were given the grades they wanted – and all we can do is ensure we continue to be there for them, to absorb any continued frustration or disappointment, and to help them with their next steps. When I wrote to the Upper Sixth a couple of days ago, I included for them an important quotation attributed to John Lennon:

“Everything will be ok in the end; if it’s not ok, it’s not the end.”

Jaideep Barot, Headmaster

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