Even in normal times, it is impossible to produce exam results that are perfectly standardised. Exams are marked by an army of teachers who attempt to agree a common standard between them. Although the marks are later cross checked by chief examiners, there is still some potential for errors. The important thing is not that the grades are correct but that the rank order of students is correct – not just in the individual school but across the country as a whole.
What OFQUAL attempted to do this year was to standardise disparate marking by referencing back to previous years' results. They had to assume that each school would perform more or less the same as they had in the past. The problem is that A level groups tend to be small in number and so results can vary considerably year on year. Grades for subjects like Latin, Classics and History of Art, mostly taken in independent schools, were either left untouched or improved; grades in Social Science subjects, taken by state schools, were downgraded.
To illustrate the problem of relying on past performance, I read about two schools that worked together to standardise their marks – each marking the other's candidates work. When the results were published, the results from one school were downgraded and the other school's grades were left untouched. The difference being that the one school had a history of A levels and the other was entering pupils for the first time.
What to do?
At first Gavin Williamson said that there would NOT be a U turn, the grades would stand. Johnson backed him up by saying that the grades were “robust”. Then the poo poo hit the fan, schools, pupils and parents were up in arms. Bear in mind that the affected students were now of voting age and Council Elections are coming up next year.
Scotland had already back tracked, Wales and Northern Island were going to back track. That left merry England out on its own.
Yesterday, Williamson said that he had thought about things over the weekend and had come to the conclusion that, right or wrong, the best thing to do was allow the teacher assessments to be upheld. You could argue that he was a big person for admitting he was wrong and apologising but remember that this mess was not created last week nor the week before, it was known for months what had taken place.
OK, so all is now well but unfortunately that is not the case. Many of the students that were rejected by their first choice University on the basis of their lowered grades have already gone to clearing to find a place at a different University and or possibly a different course. That process now needs to be unpicked in the few weeks before courses begin.
Meantime, like Nero watching Rome burn, the PM is enjoying his holiday in Scotland.