The government’s attempts to fix this summer’s broken A-level and GCSE results have been thrown into chaos after the exam regulator Ofqual revoked the appeals process for schools and students that it had published only a few hours earlier.
The move, which was caused by internal disagreements over the appeals process, could leave thousands of A-level candidates in limbo, including those trying to secure places at universities this autumn by overturning the grades awarded to them by Ofqual’s algorithm.
The guidance was revoked late on Saturday night, less than eight hours after it was published, leaving school leaders and exam boards bewildered.
Insiders said Ofqual had “blindsided” the Department for Education, after ministers had endorsed the guidance just two hours earlier.
The initial guidance contradicted claims made by Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, that pupils could choose to use grades they received in mock exams, and surprised headteachers by allowing a far wider range of school work as evidence in appeals.
Ofqual said in a statement issued shortly before midnight: “Earlier today we published information about mock exam results in appeals. This policy is being reviewed by the Ofqual board and further information will be published in due course.”
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Families are gearing up for legal challenges to Ofqual’s decision-making process that could drag it into the courts. Crowdfunding launched by the Good Law Project has already raised more than £40,000 to support six pupils suing for a judicial review. One of the students taking part saw his grades fall from a predicted BBB to EEE.
Dan Rosenberg, an education lawyer at Simpson Millar who is representing several A-level students, said: “We have been overwhelmed by enquiries from others in a similar position. All of them speak of the emotional distress and uncertainty that this has caused.”
The controversy is set to deepen on Thursday when GCSE results are published for more than 600,000 year 11 pupils in England. As many as 2m assessments submitted by teachers could be downgraded by Ofqual’s model, which relies on a school’s past performance and each pupil’s previous results from primary school.
Analysis published by the Observer found that 97% of GCSE results will be allocated solely by Ofqual’s algorithm rather than teacher-assessed grades submitted by schools and colleges. Teacher rankings of pupils will be used to distribute grades within each school.
Kenneth Baker, who was a Conservative education secretary under Margaret Thatcher, urged Williamson to instruct Ofqual not to release the GCSEs results this Thursday. “The A-level results have produced hundreds of thousands of unfair and barely explicable downgrades,” he said. “They have helped smaller private schools but hit the brighter students in a poorly performing state school.”
Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, said the results fiasco was “turning from tragedy to farce, and the chaos and incompetence is completely unacceptable when so many students and families have been devastated by it.”
She added: “A credible appeals system should have been the government’s first priority, but three days later there is absolutely no clarity on how young people can challenge their unfair grades.”
Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP who chairs the Commons education committee, said: “This is a huge mess. Goodness knows what is going on at Ofqual. It is the last thing we need at this time.”
The chaos began on Tuesday, even before A-level results were published, when Williamson abruptly announced that students unhappy with their results could use grades from their school mock exams to appeal.
He said Ofqual would set out the details by Monday, and promised that pupils unhappy with their Ofqual-allocated grades would be able to instead use a valid mock exam results or wait until autumn to sit a proper exam, which Williamson called his “triple lock”.
Ofqual’s short-lived guidance explicitly cut across Williamson’s pledge, and suggested only pupils whose teacher-assessed grades were higher than their Ofqual grades could win any appeal. That would have meant appeals were restricted to the candidates holding one of the 39% of awards downgraded from their teacher’s assessment by Ofqual’s system.
In cases of successful appeals, Ofqual said a student would instead receive the lower of their teacher-assessed grade or their mock exam grade. So a pupil receiving a grade C from Ofqual’s algorithm, but with a mock exam result of A and a teacher-assessed grade of B, would receive the B after their appeal – and not the A initially promised by Williamson.
The DfE endorsed the Ofqual appeals system on Saturday evening, saying in a statement: “We are pleased Ofqual has set out how it will implement the triple-lock policy. A student will now be able to able to appeal on the basis of their mock mark to receive that grade.
“In its role as regulator, however, Ofqual has determined that in the rare circumstances where the centre-assessed grade is lower than the mock, it would be more appropriate for the student to instead receive the centre-assessed grade.”
Ofqual’s decision is also embarrassing for Nick Gibb, the minister for school standards. Gibb wrote a letter to every headteacher and college principal in England that was issued at 8.30pm on Saturday. In the letter, Gibb said Ofqual had “issued criteria on what constitutes a valid mock result”, with a link to the guidance that was shortly to be revoked.
Ruth Davidson, the Tories’ former leader in Scotland who was recently given a peerage by Boris Johnson, said Williamson should “grab” the crisis urgently.
“This needs gripped,” she said, speaking on Times Radio. “This is not just one of these bubble issues. This is something that cuts through everything. MPs should be telling the chief whip, including Conservative MPs, that this will absolutely be one of the things that even people who don’t even pay attention to politics will be all over, because this is their child’s future.”
The Liberal Democrats’ education spokesperson, Layla Moran, said: “With the education secretary’s botched handling, no one has confidence that this week’s GCSE grade awards will be any less of a fiasco. He has to go.”
She urged the prime minister to cancel his holiday. “He must intervene before more young people have their futures stolen,” she said.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the government in England should follow the example of Scotland and abandon moderated grades in favour of teacher assessments.
“We don’t blame Ofqual for the bizarre nature of the appeals criteria. The regulator has been given a hospital pass by a government that is in disarray,” he said. “It is time for ministers to stop the chaos and fall back on teacher-assessed grades rather than prolong this nightmare.”
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