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The Ofqual furore: A veteran reflects

  • 26 August 2020
  • By John Claughton

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.


  1. Huy Duong says:

    Dear John Claughton,

    Thank you for sharing a valuable perspective that many school heads will have had. In my view, what went wrong is this:

    “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 should never have had an a priory rule the CAG distribution for each subject should not be more than 10% above the 2017-2019 average. That rule is arguably valid at the national or exam board level, but not at the school level.

    As a counter example, in its standardisation, SAQ never implemented that rule at the centre-subject level. Instead, roughly speaking, it allowed the standardised grade distribution to be slightly better than the the best of last 4 years.

    So when the school downgraded some students from its original predictions to cut the discrepancy from 10% to 5%, it was following a second guessing of the game, which was totally unnecessary. That second guessing happened to be technically correct (in theory Ofqual could have selected the Scottish model), but I don’t think it was necessarily ethically correct.

    Then the U-turn came along, causing the students who have been downgraded by the school to be disadvantaged. The CAGs should have relied on academic judgement of individual students that resulted from teachers and heads of department “trying to act responsibly and conscientiously” at the start, not on whether the cohort-wide discrepancy was going to be 10% or 5%.

    I think the school has a significant responsibility to help the students who have been disadvantaged by what it chose to do.

  2. Huy Duong says:

    … Specifically, could the school take the view that it has submitted some incorrect CAGs, and now would like to submit corrections for them to the exam boards?

  3. Rob Cuthbert says:

    Exactly right and well said. It was clear from an early stage that Ofqual could have inverted the process, as Dennis Sherwood and I have argued, and invited schools to submit cases for variation from the ‘allowed’ (by the algorithm) numbers in each grade. It would have been much better; it would have made schools much more directly accountable, but for grades they would want to defend, not for grades they felt obliged to submit. See, for example (submitted on 9 June):

  4. Tania says:

    Sad prescience from Rob there. Several people knew there was trouble coming and just had to watch the train crash. OFQUAL’s arrogance is astonishing hope there is a full shake up of the executive team, Sally Collier had to go for gross incompetence, but others should share the blame.

    I think they were also mistaken to attempt to constrain the exam centres at subject level. Some schools have very variable cohorts but would be more consistent across the whole centre. Agree that failing to give schools which could provide evidence of a strong cohort the opportunity to do so was baffling for people with heads in the real world.

    Very sad article in inews from a teacher who had to give his/her pupils the grades which would not get them what they wanted. Same point as this poignant reflection by John Claughton.

  5. So real; so wise; so, thank you!

  6. John Claughton says:

    The rest isn’t silence, after all. The IB Diploma student on whom my final words were based today had his score increased by 1 point through an appeal so he will now be able to go to Cambridge. IB is far from perfect – who is? – but at least there is an appeals process to which to appeal.

  7. Huy Duong says:

    There really is something wrong with Ofqual.

    Few countries treat its C19-hit students as viciously as does Ofqual, and yet it called its 1% and 2% grade inflation “lenient”. Even within the UK, SAQ’s algorithm was far more tolerant than Ofqual’s. SAQ’s headline figure of 5% grade inflation was already more tolerant than Ofqual’s, and that’s before taking into account the fact that SAQ allowed large increases on A and B grades.

    Not allowing real appeals (at the time) when it knew up to 50% of the grades it was about to award were going to be wrong, was just disregard for students, schools and fairness.

    Even Gavin Williamson recognises that Ofqual will have to change to gain the public’s trust.

  8. Jim Cleary says:

    This is the most accurate publicly available summary I have seen of the precise process undertaken in my own centre, and I expect, in most others. A toxic mix of good intentions leading straight to C-19 hell. A harsh light has been shone on all the elements to which the educational establishment turns its annual blind eye: inflated UCAS grades, because teachers will never want to deny a student their potential to ‘apply high’; supporting statements which, for all we know, might never be read by admissions officers; a mysterious internal moderation CAG process, the details of which staff themselves are not to know; centres left to pick up the pieces, deciding whether a Teacher Assessed Grade or a Centre Assessed Grade should be awarded (what might a parent argue, I wonder, if aware that their son/daughter’s teacher awarded a higher TAG than CAG?) Such a slow-motion crash was always possible: yes, we’ve had a series of ‘just-passing-through’ Education ministers following Gove and Cummings’ calculated thuggery, but the education sector spends too much time waiting for government to tell it what to do, and not enough time telling government what to think.

    RIP Sir Ken. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go…

  9. John Claughton says:

    The best school report I’ve had in nearly 50 years. Of course, there is an elsewhere and it’s called IB. Of course, it’s not perfect, either, and, of course, the funding of state schools has made it too hard to access, but it does lie out there, waiting for some brave souls.

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