This blog was kindly contributed by John Claughton, Chief Master of King Edward’s School, Birmingham (2006-2016). You can find John on Twitter @ClaughtonJohn .
For many years I fought upon the plains of windy Troy, but all I do now is watch the fighting, like King Priam from the battlements, and listen to the tales of younger men as they return through the gates from the battlefield. Most days someone’s corpse is being dragged round the walls.
The land of A-levels has been a battlefield for much longer than a decade but this year, to quote Donald Trump, it’s been ‘carnage’ or, to quote former Head of St Paul’s School, Martin Stephen, it’s been a ‘furore’. So, sing, o goddess – and keep it simple.
Let’s imagine that I am unlucky enough to be a secondary school Head in the academic year 2019/2020 – the annus horribilissimus – and let’s imagine that I am trying to do my best for Student A, who wants to read Medicine. By early October 2019, about a month after the academic year started, her UCAS form has to be on that wondrous – or archaic – system. With eight months to go before the exams we all know two things: she is most likely to get ABB and, if we predict her ABB, she will get no offers to read Medicine. So, her teachers and the Head all agree to predict her AAB. That is neither dishonesty nor cowardice: if we predict her ABB, we end her dreams and demotivate her; if we predict her AAB, she’s got a chance to prove herself at interview and in her final exams. Indeed, predicting her AAB might be just the motivation she needs, especially if she is a he. And, if she does not finally achieve AAB, that is her performance not our damning judgement and she can always find something else in Clearing.
At some point in the next six months, Candidate A will sit her mocks, which can take different forms at different times and can be marked in different ways, even from subject to subject within the same school: we might mark mocks as if they were the real thing, so she gets BCC in January, or we might be more generous and encouraging to our students, so she gets BBB. And in her penultimate term before exams, the school might agree upon the most probable outcome, which may – or may not – be the same as her October UCAS prediction or her January mock. All of the different sets of letters above have been formed by the school’s desire to get the right outcome for the individual who is Student A, whether she will, in the end, get AAB of not.
Then, in May, plague stalks the earth, just as in the beginning of the Iliad, and the school now has to produce something new and wondrous, CAGs, centrally-assessed grades. This new and very different game has strict Ofqual rules. Schools are now in the business of allocating grades by putting students in rank order on the basis of specific, objective data. And we know from Ofqual that they will judge our prediction in relation to the school’s average performance in the last three years. To that end, trying to act responsibly and conscientiously, Heads of Department produce CAGs for each subject and those predictions turn out to be 10 per cent above the three-year average. They are then reviewed by the senior academic leaders in the school and 10 per cent comes down to 5 per cent and that is what I, the Head, accept. The school is not being dishonest or playing the system: it is obvious that our predictions will be slightly over positive because we cannot take account of what always happens: some students do have unpredictable – and unpredicted – shockers. On the other hand, the system also does not allow the school to be generous to a student whom we know to be a late and fast finisher, or a wizard in the exam room: to do so would distort the rank order and do a disservice to others. So, we have provided a serious answer to the question to the best of our abilities within the context of the rules. So, after all that, Student A gets BBB from us. And that’s that, isn’t it?
Not quite. First, Ofqual’s algorithm takes great chunks out of our science results so Student A is now given CCC. Then, Ofqual decides not to change the rules, but to scrap them entirely so that now Student A has BBB, from the school’s data, and Student A and the parents of Student A conclude that the school has ended Student A’s medical career. Now, all of a sudden, the corridor outside my study and my inbox are populated by lots of Students from B to Z – and their parents – blaming the school and demanding some form of appeal. And there is not one, since Ofqual has torn up its own rules and left the field. So, all parents can do is appeal to the school against a decision which we have taken with all seriousness and integrity. And term has not even started.
So, is there anything to be done or is this hole a black hole from which nothing can escape. Well, the following might help. First, Ofqual and members of Her Majesty’s Government might accept and admit that their algorithm and their rules – and the disappearance of those rules – have put schools in an impossible situation. Second, Ofqual might go further and actually do what they say they are doing and trust the professionals. They could follow the wisdom, if not the science, and allow schools to make appeals for cases of real injustice. And, thirdly, universities might do the same and listen to schools when they make a plea for special cases. Universities have always had to trust schools, up to a point, with predicted grades and references, so why not listen now, in these dark times?
And, as I leave the walls, I have one further thought about a forgotten corner of this battlefield. We may spend all our time on A-level students but there is an elsewhere, and different exam systems. IB Diploma students did not benefit from their organisation giving in, like Ofqual, even if IB did adapt and revise their results. So, IB students never did get to take their full set of exams and yet they are being rejected by universities, even though their predicted grades and their mock results and their probable outcomes were all higher than the final number they got from IB. And, of course, universities awash with excess A-level candidates are not going to start being forgiving of those who have ‘missed’ their offers. Not much that has gone on recently has been all that fair or reasonable, but this is really unfair and really unreasonable.
The rest is silence.