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Schools and pupils express anger over ‘irreparable’ A-level marking

Government U-turn too late for students now accepted by second-choice universities

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v Headteachers in Jewish schools have expressed their anger over the damage done to pupils by the A-level marking fiasco last week — even after the U-turn which led to marks awarded by an algorithm devised by exam regulator Ofqual being replaced by teachers’ predicted grades.

Michael Sutton, headteacher of King David High School Liverpool, said he feared “considerable damage has been done to specific students in the short term. That is irreparable as we have had students accept insurance offers who now qualify for their first choice university.”

Though grateful for the impact on this week’s GCSE results, he added, “Unfortunately, this episode has undermined the excellent work school staff have done in applying their professional expertise in difficult circumstances. I feel that this was not matched elsewhere.”

Widespread relief greeted the government’s dramatic climbdown on Monday, which restored the grades originally submitted by schools for their students in lieu of cancelled exams.

The decision was taken after pupil demonstrations, legal threats and growing unrest among backbench MPs. At that point, the education authorities recognised there was no possibility of instituting an effective appeals system following the volume of protests after the announcement of results last Thursday.

At Kantor King Solomon High in Redbridge, the Jewish school with the most diverse intake, headteacher Hannele Reece said the downgrading had initially cost 38 students their university place.

More than half the grades — 53 per cent — submitted by the school’s teachers had been lowered by the Ofqual formula. “The downgrading meant that our disadvantaged students were significantly affected, achieving half the number of A*-C grades that non-disadvantaged students received,” she said.

Whereas around 55 per cent of A-level grades had initially been from A* to C, after the U-turn the figure would now rise to around 80 per cent, she said.

By Wednesday morning, five of the 38 students had managed to find a university place, “so things are hopefully beginning to move,” she said.

But she was disappointed that the U-turn had come “so late in the day given that they have had centre assessed grades for so long. It is clear that the algorithm used was flawed because it took no account of student prior performance and so it was always going to lead to inequalities.”

However, she added, “for the vast majority of our students they will now have grades that reflect their ability and will help them into the pathways they deserve.”

Rachel Fink, headteacher of JFS, the country’s largest Jewish school, said the U-turn “at least acknowledges teachers’ professional abilities to assess their students based on their performance over time.

“However, students should never have found themselves in this situation in the first place and a more informed plan should have been in place from the outset.”

Although the revised grades would make only “marginal difference” to students at Yavneh College in Hertfordshire, its headteacher Spencer Lewis said the past week’s events were “very avoidable. Our students have had such a hard time over the last six months and the way things have unfolded has been far from easy for them.”

Leora Mocton, who has just left Hasmonean High School for Girls, said she was “quite shocked” when she received her initial results last week. Predicted by the school to get As in biblical Hebrew and economics and a B in psychology, she was downgraded to a C in economics in line with Ofqual’s formula.

After a gap year in Israel, she was planning to apply to University College London to do Hebrew and Jewish studies, where according to its website students are expected to come with at least an A and two Bs.

“If it had stayed ABC, it would have been harder to get on the course,” she said. “At first it was pretty stressful. But I wasn’t freaking out. I did think I would get a good shot at appealing. Some friends at other Jewish schools had been predicted As and Bs and got Cs and Ds. They’re happy with the turnaround.”

Her revised grades after the U-turn means she now has above minimum entry requirements for her intended course.

But her feeling is that once the education authorities in England had witnessed what had happened in Scotland earlier this month — where protests had forced the government there also to retreat —  “they could have changed before they gave us the results.”

Gary Griffin, headteacher of Immanuel College, said it was “a pity that it took the government so long to come to this conclusion. Had they reacted sympathetically to the Scottish decision sooner then a great deal of heartache, agonising and administration could have been avoided.”

Immanuel’s result were “looking very good last week,” he said, “They will now be outstanding.”

But he added that he did not envy universities “trying to sort their admissions now”.

With tens of thousands of students armed with improved grades as a result of the U-turn, universities faced a sudden increase in demand for places.
JFS student Raphy Simons believed he had secured a place to read politics and American studies at Nottingham University after his grades were upped from BCC to BBC. But he says later in the day the offer was retracted.

“That was a big hit but luckily I had really good people to call and I got re-motivated pretty quickly,” he said.

He now plans to take a year out to do work experience and sit exams in October.

From last Thursday, the Union of Jewish Students began fielding an increasing number of calls from students looking at campus alternatives after failing to receive the grades they hoped for. “Lots of parents and students who did not get their first-choice university want to know what Jewish life and wider student life is like on their second choice campus,” said communications officer Shiri Wolff.

For Manchester’s King David High School, the reversal meant a double-digit rise in A* to B grades. Under the Ofqual system, these had initially been at 71 to 72 per cent, compared with the 78 to 79 per cent for the school’s mock exams earlier this year. Now based wholly on teacher-assessment, they will increase to 83 to 84 per cent.

Ofqual — and exam regulators in the rest of the UK — had sought to modify teacher-produced grades in order to prevent over-generous evaluation. To do this, it used a computer algorithm which took into account the record of the school or college over the previous years.

But as the implications of the approach began to dawn, critics said this simply ignored the performance of individual students.

Patrick Moriarity, headteacher of JCoSS in East Barnet, told students he was “delighted” by the U-turn. “The much-hated algorithm has been rejected and those who know your work best have been trusted to say what you deserved.”

Earlier in the day, before the government’s announcement, he had written a strong letter to local MP Theresa Villiers calling for the original teacher grades to be recognised.

Although the cross-communal school had achieved its best results, he told her, 52 per cent of teacher grades had been lowered. A third of the cohort had overall grades reduced by three — eg from AAA to BBB — and nearly two-thirds by two. Some students had been “inexplicably downgraded,” he complained.

Events at the weekend, he said, when Ofqual had published guidance on a planned appeals procedure only to withdraw it hours later, had “turned a drama into a farce”.

The statistical model adopted had “masked huge injustices,” he said. “ At school level the injustice has rewarded the already successful (like JCoSS) but apparently at the expense of others;  at student level it has created true anguish, demonstrable unfairness and disillusionment even among those who have in fact lost little or nothing, let alone among those who have been directly affected. 

“The view as I am hearing it is that this could not have been handled worse.”

One teacher at a Jewish school described the treatment of this year’s students as “cruel”.

When assessing what grades to award pupils, she and colleagues had “worked on the basis that if someone came knocking on the door and asked us to prove it, we had the evidence to support it. If someone was a B-student, we wouldn’t have predicted an A.” Given what students had endured since lockdown, “they didn’t deserve all the uncertainty, with the complete debacle of the results”. But she hoped that “in five years,  no one is going to care what they got at A-level if they have been able to move on with their lives”.

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