GCSEs: 2 million results set to be downgraded, researchers warn

Two million GCSE grades recommended by teachers are set to be downgraded next week, with disadvantaged pupils even worse hit than in the A-levels debacle, according to analysis from leading researchers.

Thousands of headteachers have called for urgent action to avoid “serious injustices” that could blight the life chances of their pupils, after their exams were cancelled due to coronavirus and the results decided by an algorithm that has been condemned as unfair.

Experts at the FFT Education Datalab research unit told the Guardian they expected the proportion of grades assessed by teachers likely to be forced down by Ofqual’s statistical mechanism to be 35-40%. As revealed by the Guardian last week, 39% of teacher-assessed A-levels were downgraded on Thursday.

Nick Gibb, the schools minister for England, is understood to be setting up a task force to ensure that appeals over A-level grades will be heard by 7 September, before the start of the university year. The task force will include members of Ofqual and the examination boards as well as the Department for Education. The DfE is also preparing to pay any appeal fees, so that no school is out of pocket.

The Datalab warned that teachers’ assessments for disadvantaged students’ GCSEs were likely to be the most over-optimistic, so schools and regions with higher proportions will see the biggest negative impact of Ofqual’s moderation.

A greater slice of those taking GCSEs are from disadvantaged backgrounds when compared to A-levels.

It comes amid a row between Ofqual, the exam regulator, and the Royal Statistical Society, after it claimed to have offered independent external advisers to help oversee the algorithm – but was told this would only be accepted if it signed a non-disclosure agreement.

Despite being higher overall than last year, Thursday’s A-level results left students and teachers in shock at a slew of unexpectedly poor grades issued by Ofqual. Students reported being downgraded from an A to an E and a C to a U. The mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, said he was considering legal action against Ofqual.

A repeat of tearful scenes would increase pressure on the education secretary, Gavin Williams, who faced a call to resign from the Liberal Democrats and angry rumblings from Conservative backbenchers over his handling of the controversy.

The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, proposed that the government in England should follow Scotland by reinstating the grades recommended by teachers before they were moderated down by an algorithm designed to control grade inflation.

GCSEs are taken by around 700,000 schoolchildren in England, who in a normal year would sit 5m individual exams. This year Williamson ordered exams to be cancelled after schools closed in March due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

Ofqual’s model uses the recent historical performance of a school and the academic track record of each pupil to distribute the grades set by its national formula. Teachers were asked to assess and rank their pupils and submit the results to Ofqual, but the assessments are often overruled.

Philip Nye, a researcher at the Datalab, said: “We found that schools that were lower-attaining and with more disadvantaged intakes were submitting higher grades, so we think that GCSE results will see more disadvantaged pupils have their results lowered through the moderation process.

“There are more disadvantaged pupils taking GCSEs than there are at A-levels, so potentially downgrades could be more widespread.”

Jon Coles, chief executive of the United Learning schools group and a former senior official at the Department for Education (DfE), said Ofqual’s analysis suggested results in the two biggest GCSE subjects, English and maths, were likely to be more accurate. But most other GCSE courses would see more erratic results.

Coles said next week could see more turbulent results because of the wider spread of abilities and weaker data available. For disadvantaged pupils the biggest danger point was getting a 4 or above in England and maths, which the DfE counts as a pass. “For comprehensives schools that’s the key measure of success, especially for disadvantaged pupils,” he said.

Thousands of headteachers have backed a plea by the Worth Less? campaign group of school leaders for Williamson to explain how he intends to avoid a repeat of “serious injustices”.

“We fear that such injustices will occur on a massive scale when GCSE grades are published next week. That’s why thousands of responsible headteachers are demanding that the secretary of state make an urgent public statement explaining to pupils and their families how and why the standardisation process has failed so many and confirming exactly what the DfE will do to put things right and avoid a ‘GCSE debacle’ next week,” the group said.

“Through no fault of their own, pupils have suffered enough disruption to their school lives. They have the unassailable right to successfully and fairly proceed with their future plans for university, A-level, vocational and other vital future educational courses. This is currently in serious doubt unless decisive new action is taken.”

Simon Burgess, a professor of economics at the University of Bristol who specialises in education and school attainment, said the major issue would be how many pupils are marked down at crucial grade boundaries, such as 4 and 5 in subjects like English and maths.

“These matter most for lower ability students. The key thing for GCSEs is getting at least a 5 in English and maths – let’s hope we will not be looking at many students predicted to get that but denied. That would seriously worsen their chances in an already dreadful labour market,” Burgess said.

Controversy continued to rage over A-level results on Friday, as more scrutiny was applied to Ofqual’s algorithm and how it appears to favour pupils in small classes taking less popular courses such as Latin, which are more common in private schools.

The Royal Statistical Society repeated a call for the Office for Statistics Regulation to conduct a formal review of the statistical models adopted by Ofqual and other UK exam regulators, and revealed that Ofqual snubbed repeated offers of advice and help.

The society said it offered its fellows to act as independent external advisers on Ofqual’s technical advisory group during the construction of its algorithm. “We eventually heard from Ofqual that they could consider these two fellows, but only with a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that gave us real concern,” the society said.

“The proposed confidentiality agreement would, on our reading, have precluded these fellows … from commenting in any way on the final choice of the model for some years after this year’s results were released.

“In the end, we did not get an official response to those questions, and our offer to help was not taken up.”

Ofqual did not respond to a request for comment about the offer.

The turbulent results and likely wave of appeals by disappointed students appears to have slowed down applications for university places. Ucas, the universities admissions body, said that the number of applicants going through clearing to find places was down by 24% compared with previous years.

One reason, Ucas said, was that “students face a more complex set of choices around appeals”.

Universities told the Guardian that their staff were having to spend longer with individual applicants. “For the University of Greenwich, this has meant that we have had to adapt and spend more time reassuring and supporting our prospective students than ever before,” said Chris Shelley, director of student and academic services at Greenwich.

Tracey Lancaster, deputy vice-chancellor at Leeds Beckett University, said: “We’ve had a number of calls from students who are disappointed with their grades. We’ve also noticed fewer celebratory posts on social media this year – the general atmosphere has been more subdued.”

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