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A-levels 2020: a system without much appeal

  • 16 August 2020
  • By Rob Cuthbert

This blog has been contributed by Rob Cuthbert, an independent consultant at Practical Academics and an Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management. This piece follows on from his previous HEPI blog, ‘A-Levels 2020: what students and parents need to know’.

The horror show that is A-levels in 2020 descended to complete farce over the weekend, but no one is laughing. There are tens of thousands of ruined dreams after A-levels results day, because for five months the Government and Ofqual have been too secretive, made bad choices, refused to listen to constructive criticism, tried to tough it out and then made the wrong concessions too late. The risk in trying to summarise the position on Sunday is that it will no doubt be very different on Monday, after major changes on Saturday. But let us try.

Faced with mass public protest, Scotland u-turned on the Highers awards announced on 6 August, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon admitting on Monday (10 August) that they had got it wrong, and Scots education minister John Swinney the next day announcing that they would abandon their algorithm and use only Centre-Assessed Grades (CAGs). Whitehall’s Department for Education went into full panic mode in relation to England. Secretary of State Gavin Williamson had nailed his colours to the this-algorithm-is-robust-and-fair mast so many times that he would not follow Scotland’s lead, and there was no sensible alternative. So he went for something that wasn’t sensible – the announcement late on Tuesday night (11 August)  that students could use mock grades under certain circumstances instead of the algorithm’s grades.

For thousands of students who had taken mocks, this sounded like blessed relief. Not only could they now make an individual appeal (something previously ruled out), they knew it would succeed. But that was late Tuesday night. By Wednesday morning Ofqual, Schools Minister Nick Gibb and Universities Minister Michelle Donelan were doing their best to dilute the message, saying only that mocks might form part of the grounds for an appeal and even suggesting that not many appeals were expected. Schools and colleges, who had only that day received their students’ grades with shock and horror, pointed out the huge variability and complete lack of standardisation of mocks even within one school, let alone across the whole sector.

Williamson stood firm on his ‘triple lock’ – mocks or algorithm grades or Autumn exams. It was presented as a solution for all, when it was nothing of the sort. He had already announced that Ofqual would issue guidance on how the new appeals system would work, and Ofqual understandably said they would need a few days to work out how to operationalise the process, with a statement promised ‘next week’. Unfortunately, a few days were not available.

A-level results day was Thursday. Universities had as usual had prior notice of grades (on the preceding Friday) to enable them to hit the ground running on Thursday with offers and Clearing. The announcement on mocks-based appeals came much too late for them to change their starting position on Thursday. UCAS had already agreed to extend their deadline for decisions from 31 August to 7 September, and frantic statements from the Department for Education asked universities to hold places open for students whose grades depended on appeals.

Universities, with no prior notice of these changes, reacted variously – however sympathetic, they were facing pressures of their own. There is always tricky arithmetic for universities in deciding which students should have offers confirmed and who, even with a confirmed place, may not come. This year added hugely to the problems, which now included complete guesswork about how many international students might eventually want to enrol, even if they were able to travel to the UK, and the impact of a temporary Government-imposed set of student number controls. Earlier in the year, the Government had through the Office for Students also more-or-less outlawed unconditional offers to students, which would have reduced some of the uncertainty for students and universities.

In practice, what this meant was that many courses and even some whole universities rapidly filled all or almost all their places. The most selective universities and the most selective courses were most likely to be full; stories abounded of brilliant students with Oxbridge offers or would-be medical students being told they could not take up their place, irrespective of the outcome of any appeal. The worst effects seem to be in the most popular subjects with the largest cohorts – Mathematics, Chemistry, Biology and Psychology – ironic indeed for a Government so determined to promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects and talk down the humanities and creative arts.

Universities were doing their best to help, with initiatives like Leicester’s splendid declaration that it would accept mock grades regardless of any appeal. The Department for Education intimated that student number controls would be eased, but the overall cap on numbers would stay. It seemed unlikely that any university would actually receive the swingeing financial penalties previously threatened for exceeding their controlled targets.

Meanwhile, the A-levels story was headline news and stayed on the front pages despite suspiciously-timed announcements about quarantine for holidaymakers in France, seemingly designed to knock A-levels out of the public consciousness. The Ofqual algorithm had led to CAGs which would have created unacceptably high levels of grade inflation, with Ofqual not quite blaming teachers, but Government spin-doctors trying to make the charge stick. There was too much evidence of good professional judgment and integrity, so Government tried to blame the universities, with no more success. 

By the end of Thursday, attention had switched to the finally-published Ofqual algorithm  and their lengthy Interim Report.  The storm of criticism of the approach became ever more expert as the statisticians weighed in. Imperial professors Guy Nason and George Constantinides expressed their polite but damning reservations in comments on Twitter which were retweeted hundreds if not thousands of times. It emerged that Ofqual had refused help from the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) some months earlier, unless the helpers agreed to sign draconian non-disclosure agreements which the RSS deemed completely inappropriate.

The 318-page Ofqual Interim Report was taken apart piece by piece. Even things we thought we knew turned out to be wrong. One example: ‘large’ cohorts – any with more than 15 students – turned out not to mean 15 students this year. Size was defined as the ‘harmonic mean’ of the cohort size this year and the total numbers in the cohorts for the last three years. If there had been 120 students in the last three years, an apparently ‘medium-sized’ cohort of 8 this year would be defined by the algorithm as ‘large’. That one detail alone had led to widespread mystification among schools and journalists about how the method worked. What the algorithm called a C might have been a borderline B/C or C/D, but it might also have been anywhere between A and E, depending on the school’s cohort and history. That is why some students saw their CAGs plummeting by two or even three grades, in too many cases.

In response to the wave of protests, the Department made a further concession, announcing on 15 August that appeals would be free of charge and there would be a ‘gold command’ task force chaired by Schools Minister Nick Gibb to make sure appeals would be handled quickly.

Under extreme pressure, Ofqual put out its advice on the amended appeals process by early afternoon on Saturday, ahead of the date it had promised. That introduced two new  possibilities.

  • First, students who had not taken mocks could still appeal on the basis of some other non-mock assessment held under controlled conditions.
  • Secondly, CAGs might also be used in deciding the outcome of the appeal – if the CAG was lower than the mock grade, then the CAG would be used instead.

But this, of course, suggested that the CAG was a more reliable basis for judgment. While this was almost certainly true – CAGs, unlike mocks, rested on a great deal of careful and collective teacher judgment – it nevertheless still failed to allow for the range of school behaviours, where many schools had probably decided to propose no more than the maximum likely to be allowable as A*, say, even though they might have more students potentially able to achieve that top grade. 

The implications of the advice were still being debated and worked out in social media when very late on Saturday evening Ofqual withdrew its advice, saying that the Ofqual board would review it and another statement would follow ‘in due course’. So just when we thought it could not get any worse, it did. Speculation on Sunday centred on the suspicion that it was the mention of CAGs that might have caused the Department for Education to tell Ofqual to change tack, mostly because of a report in The Sunday Telegraph by Camilla Turner, often very well-briefed on new government education initiatives. This was the position at midday on Sunday. 

It did not have to be like this. The likely problems were obvious from the moment that Ofqual had announced it would require detailed rankings, and had been predicted from an early stage. The Education Select Committee had called on 11 July for action by Ofqual which would have improved the situation, but Ofqual had in particular refused to publish their algorithm immediately, as the Committee had asked. Ofqual had already refused offers of expert help by setting unacceptable conditions.

Policymakers in England repeatedly doubled down on supporting the supposed ‘integrity’ of the national system, at the expense of the many thousands of individual students experiencing terrible injustice, overlaid by what appeared to be class-based privileging of the already-advantaged. However this is in many ways an equal-opportunities disgrace, because many individual unfairnesses are built in for every kind of school. Every badly-treated student has the same problem: they have been judged not by their own performance, but by the record of previous students at their school. They have been forced to compete with their own schoolmates, within each subject, for the limited number of top grades available as determined by the algorithm. And for many it is already too late for them to get the place they deserve and would probably have achieved if they could only have been judged on their own performance, not other people’s.

Ofqual explained in their 318-page Interim Report why they went for the ‘meso’ level solution rather than a completely national or completely individual level approach. That was probably the right choice, and it could have been made to work. But now it has failed, and the only acceptable solution is something like this:

  • abandon the algorithm and award grades based on CAGs, as in Scotland;
  • abandon completely the student number controls on higher education institutions and the financial penalties for over-recruitment;
  • consider additional targeted funding for universities with capacity constraints so that offers for downgraded students might still be available this year; and
  • consider some kind of compensation, whether financial or non-financial, for all downgraded students unable to go to the university of their choice this year, if only to head off the expected deluge of legal action from the Good Law Project and others.

In 2016 Nick Hillman made a key point about the difference between individual and collective social justice in his discussion of grammar schools:

The difference between those who place the interests of society above the interests of individuals and those who put individuals above society goes to the heart of politics. 

In reality, each person – not just each political party – is a mix of the individualistic and the communitarian. … a good manager simultaneously cares about the health of their organisation and its individual members of staff. … MPs oscillate between acting in the interests of society as a whole and acting in the interests of individual citizens. It is the difference between fixing the problems raised by someone at a constituency surgery and being a Minister, frontbench spokesperson or Select Committee member

Most big political questions can only be answered by balancing the needs of individuals against society.

For this year’s A-levels, government and Ofqual have got that balance horribly wrong. GCSE results are announced on Thursday 20 August, with Ofqual admitting that their algorithm is less reliable for GCSE than for A-levels. Up to two million centre-assessed grades might be changed. Will the government get the balance right this time? 


  1. A says:

    “it nevertheless still failed to allow for the range of school behaviours, where many schools had probably decided to propose no more than the maximum likely to be allowable as A*, say, even though they might have more students potentially able to achieve that top grade.”

    There seems to be no redress for this group of students who will now not even be able to fall back on a higher mock result of their own work but left with an underestimated CAG which they can’t appeal? Will the school willingly admit this and appeal? Bitter pill indeed to swallow… that all other groups affected get recognition and redress except them. What a message to send them out into the world with.

  2. Rob Cuthbert says:

    A, you are right. What can be done? It will help some students unfairly marked down if they can appeal and use higher grades for mocks than the CAGs they were awarded by the school. If mocks are lower or no better than the CAGs then perhaps that is as it should be.

    The sixth form colleges are calling for the algorithm to be recalibrated and rerun, perhaps partly because many colleges only put in the grades they thought they would be allowed, rather than what every individual might have achieved.

    Remember also another group: students who took the International Baccalaureate may still be in limbo or dissatisfied with the outcome of the review promised by the IB.

  3. John Claughton says:

    Have other countries suffered similar problems? If not, why not? In the end, there is something rotten in the state of A levels. They were invented by universities as their means of selection and this generated the deeply damaging narrowness of 3 A levels to which we returned in recent years. In the last forty years they have been taken into captivity by government as a means of proving things they wanted to prove. Hence, grade inflation, Curriculum 2000 and the retreat from Curriculum 2000, dumbing down, the use of the data by Ofsted which o’ershadows schools and heads and teachers and kids.
    There must be an elsewhere. Perhaps it’s called IB.

  4. Simon Kaufman says:


    Looks now as if the first two points of your solution will be announced by close of play today; can’t see how there can be a shift to CAGs now without either very substantial relaxation or abandonment of SNCs – your third suggestion would help with capacity constraints in some subject areas at some universities – particularly STEM in RG institutions. The more difficult capacity constraints are around Med/Dental/Vet schools and how additional monies can feed into clinical numbers further down the road. The issue of the standing of the legal challenges is particularly interesting re the enforcement of contracts on fulfilment of offer conditions and attempts already in play by some institutions to state that appeals/upgrading to CAGs will require deferral.
    In the latter case this in effect means 18 months out of formal education in conditions of a pandemic with all sorts of issues about future reintegration and engagement in learning; it also raises the question of which types of student may be placed in this situation – by the sounds of all the online examples it won’t be the most advantaged with the support networks and access to ‘gap’ type opportunities who could most easily cope with this ‘break’ in learning.

    John’s comments are also of interest perhaps caveated by the issues outstanding with IB assessment this year; I’ve always been a big fan of the IB model personally as ideal preparation for HE learning – whether it can be rolled out and resourced across the piece is an unresolved issue as is the challenge it poses for students who hitherto have not needed to engage with the breadth of subject coverage any and all baccalaureate models require and who have benefitted from being able to make humanities or STEM specialisms the basis of their AL choices.

    Within this year’s mess there may be an opportunity to look again at how to best model 14-19 or 16 – 19 education and its assessment – very questionable however as to whether this will occur – similarly there is an issue for HE about how it makes Confirmation decisions around the education communities its processes appear to favour – those subjects and schools with small cohort sizes to a disproportionate extent undercutting its wider access agenda whenever hard time contingent decisions are
    required with certain honourable exceptions this year (Worcester College, Oxford as probably the highest profile example – reading back to my comments above about Medical Schools above does anyone know of examples where recourse was made to evidence from the additional testing tools utilised earlier in the cycle as a discriminator to inform Confirmation decisions – if not and decisions were simply made mechanistically on AL grades this rather begs the question as to the justification for the insertion of additional testing tools into the process?

  5. Rob Cuthbert says:

    Simon, your points are very apposite. Right now I think the priority has to be dealing with the unfairness to would-be medical students (in particular) who as you say are facing 18 months out of education – when the research evidence suggests that in STEM generally it’s better to avoid gap years, because it’s difficult to get back up to speed. We have to wait and see if the calls to expand places this year can be met in practice at all. The logistics of immediate expansion look as if they’re very difficult to overcome.

    The points about UCAT/BMAT etc are well-made, but no doubt the universities would say they acted in good faith on the basis of the situation facing them on Thursday. It would have been better if everyone had paused for 24 hours, but that just isn’t how university admissions works. If some had waited and others had not, the ones who waited might have ended up worse off. If govt wants a market it can’t complain if universities operate as efficiently as possible in the market it has created. As for Oxford, I’m glad they had the headroom to do as Worcester and a few others have done. But the University as a whole only offered 80 more places than were available, whereas Cambridge made 4500 offers for 3500 places, so it’s not surprising that it’s only Oxford colleges making these kinds of statements.

    As for my 4 points, the first two have been done, universities have called for the third (and I expect some kind of positive response) and without the fourth being volunteered there will be legal action which I would expect to lead to the same outcome.

    And while I also prefer the IB in principle, this year they have suffered the same kind of problems as for A-levels, and anecdotes available to me suggest they have failed to achieve the same kind of uplift as the switch to CAGs has achieved for A-levels. Which could, reputationally, be a long-term disincentive for students, if they are not careful.

  6. John Claughton says:

    It is obvious that IB did not get its own ‘algorithm’ right, although it seems that one thing on which everyone agrees is that there was never going to be a ‘right’ answer. However, in IB’s favour/defence, the following may need to be said:

    1. IB can make its own decisions – and changes – to the results without having to answer to any single government.
    2. Those decisions are made by people who have spent their lives in education who are responding to genuine concerns, not the fear of public unrest.
    3. Even in the last few days IB has made further substantive changes to the criteria and the results.
    4. Those changes have not been generated neither by public outcry nor governmental chaos.
    5. IB has already produced plans for adapting the curriculum for the 2021 cohort.
    6. IB’s solutions have not created massive grade inflation nor massive confusion at universities.
    7. IB has had since early July to make changes in contrast to the 72 hour of utter confusion.
    8. IB should not be faulted for not doing what A levels have done because what A levels have done – even now – is a shambles created by government intervention.

    In the end, my concern is that some IB students will be disadvantaged precisely because A level students are being over-rewarded by the government’s volte face. Perhaps IB students need to be allowed to use as evidence their schools’ predictions, just like A level students.

  7. Rob Cuthbert says:

    John Claughton, I agree on all 8 points. However after the IB results Ofqual put the IB ‘under scrutiny’, which now seems like a sick joke. But it made the point that IB in England/UK is subject to the regulator.

  8. John Claughton says:

    Gosh. That cheers me up. IB has always had to accept Ofquality – if you know what I mean – but it’s even worse than that. They have to answer to lots and lots of Ofqual equivalents around the world. It’s a wonder they can do anything at all.

  9. simon kaufman says:


    It seems that your third point has now been met; perhaps SPADs and others in DfE have been reading this blog!

    Is it your reading of the Minister’s letter earlier today that the commitment to additional funding covers the student life cycle of each entrant? If ‘yes’ then we have a significant unplanned expansion of medical schools as a positive outcome of this year’s mess and an uplift in funding for the sector which might well mean that substantial elements of the planned (originally pencilled in for autumn 2020) HE White Paper will need to be rewritten.

    I agree with all John’s points about the IB and like Rob have concerns that at the top end of the sector IB applicants who do not fulfil the terms of IB points offers (not Tariff equivalents) may be squeezed out of places this year as a result of the obligation to take applicants on the basis of CAG outcomes with this scenario causing reputational risk for the IBO and making it less likely that school leaders will either offer the IB as an alternate to ALs or switch over entirely to IB when making strategic decisions as to future post 16 curriculum choices.

    Finally it will be very interesting to see how the admission of c 15000 (Ucas figures yesterday) applicants with matched CAG grades impacts on the demographic make up of this year’s entry cohort at our more socially exclusive HEIs (some of whom will in effect be experiencing a forced expansion of Home numbers at variance from their institutional plans) and further down the line on degree outcomes – there should be much here for researchers into the demographics of access to and progression through HE to look into over the next few years and perhaps with all sorts of consequences for access and admission to HE which without this year’s unprecedented outcomes would have been far more challenging to bring about.

  10. Rob Cuthbert says:

    Simon, the number crunching really will be very interesting this year. As for IB, their review seems to have been completed without any relief for some. I heard of one IB cohort of 11 where 9 didn’t get their first choice university place, no change after review.

  11. John Claughton says:

    Rarely have two people agreed with me. Simon is right about the danger to IB students at the top end who have just missed their offers and are being squeezed out because universities are awash with candidates who have now made their offers through CGA inflation. However, the overall all picture of IB outcomes is not that dark: King Edward’s Birmingham with 100 candidates has got 85% first choice and 7% second choice acceptances, which is probably the best ever outcome and an IB international school in Italy I know has had similarly positive outcomes. Small IB cohorts can deliver anomalous tales.

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