This years exam process has been tumultuous to say the least. After a Gavin Williamson interview on Radio 4 during which he failed to explain the most basic steps of the 2020 process, it seemed to me a good idea to look what the Exams fiasco can tell us about public policy and the lines of accountability between the organisations that govern us.
Let me remind us of the sequence of events that have lead Ofqual and the DfE to here.
15th April – The Chief Regulator, Sally Collier, writes to Gavin Williamson updating him on their progress. Collier writes:
“We note your direction that we should adopt an approach to standardise
those assessment grades across centres. In line with our statutory
objectives, it is vital to adopt an approach that is consistent, fair and
maintains standards as far as is possible. We are therefore launching
today a consultation that, among other things, seeks views on the
principles that we propose should underpin the approach we take to the
standardisation of centre assessment grades. The outcomes of our
consultation will inform the choices we make, as we have due regard to
your direction that, as far as is possible, standards should be maintained
and the distribution of grades follows a similar pattern to that in previous
A quick look at Ofqual’s statutory objectives that Collier refers to there shows us that they would have to abide by these instructions
“Our aims are:
• to ensure students can receive grades in these qualifications this summer so they can progress to the next stages of their lives without further disruption
• that the grades will be as valued as those of any other year
• that the approach will be fair
The consultation includes questions and responses to the practical issues on the differing approaches to collecting Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs), where the lines of malpractice should be drawn and, most relevant to what subsequently happened, how the standardization process should work. Qfqual found the majority of respondents Agreed or Strongly agreed with their suggestion that the fairest way of standarising grades would be to take into the account the past performance of the centre.”
One of the questions directly relates to the DfE instruction to keep grades in line with past performance
(The splits in the types of respondents for each response are interesting. Schools are fairly split across the disagree/agree line, Employers & Exam Officers were more weighed to agree while Teacher Union representatives were much more likely to strongly disagree)
22nd May – At the same time, Ofqual also release a press release and accompanying inforgraphics to explain their plan. This includes:
“To make sure grades are as fair as possible, exam boards will standardise centre assessment grades using a statistical model which will include the expected national outcomes for this year’s students, the prior attainment of students at each school and college (at cohort, not individual level), and previous results of the school or college.
Because these arrangements have had to be put in place very quickly due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it would have been impossible to provide school and college staff with national training to support them in making standardised judgements. As such, it is highly likely that all centres will see some adjustment, in at least one subject, to their centre assessment grades, however carefully they have made their judgements. Such adjustments are in the interests of fairness to all students because they will ensure, as far as possible, that individual centres have not been too severe or too generous in comparison with other centres.”
13th August – A Level & Level 3 Vocational results day and huge amounts of criticism and unrest with individuals results are reported
20th August – GCSE and Level 2 results day
20th August – Ofqual release an updated (to include the changes around mock grades) guide for teachers, students, parents and carers. This includes specific reference to
The criticism of the process Ofqual embarked upon was fierce in the days following the A Level results. In the fallout the nuances of what the process had resulted in were lost. Those critical of the process showed that Independent schools had been rewarded with higher grades. Those who defended the process showed that students from higher socio-economic backgrounds were actually “downgraded” more at A*/A than those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. The nuance of why this had happened (smaller groups, more prevalent at Independant schools are impossible to standardise so the CAGs were left alone) failed to find sympathy or traction in the debate. In the end, it was the stories of those individual young people who received grades lower than their teachers expected them to achieve overwhelmed any other message.
The public mood was that these young people had suffered an unfair conclusion to an unfair process through no fault of their own. The Ofqual response that, overall grades for low SES students were up, that overall more disadvantaged young people were progressing onto Uni and that their model replicated what would happen (again, overall) in a regular year with some improvement, did not wash. The given reasons for the lowered grades for some students of the difficulty of standardizing small cohorts and the (approved by consultation remember) desire to anchor a centres results to past years, meant that all paled under the weight of the lack of agency that an individual student held over their own future. The failure of the Government to a) foresee the actual implications for individuals of their policy decision and then b) to have an appeal process in place ready to deal with the fallout then lead to a vacuum of direction which the U-turn of adopting CAGs as a solution which, unfortunately, only potentially shifts the unfairness onto other students.
This whole episode has shown the power that stories of the individual still hold over public policy making. Ofqual were instructed by Government to achieve a hugely difficult task with clear directions. Whether they should have been or not is a moot point, once instructed they were bound to do this and achieve it in a manner that ensured fairness between year cohorts. They relied on published research to guide them. They asked the public, stakeholders and experts who replied in large numbers and guided their direction of travel and decisions. They told the media, the public and Government repeatedly what they were then planning to do and what it would likely lead to and yet still, when their solution began to impact individuals, the political pressure grew so quickly that the policy soon crumbled. Yet, it is those who have tried to enact the policy set for them who are no longer in their positions. Those who determined the course of action from the outset remain.
Meanwhile, the lesson seems to be for those in positions of advocacy wanting to shape public policy, Exams 2020 has been a frantic reminder that data, research and results in the aggregate can be trumped by the stories of individuals.