Is a sub-standard system valued over students?

Written by | News, Principal

An Open Letter by Deborah O’Hare, Principal of The Wallace High School

As a school leader of a large, highly successful co-educational school the academic, emotional and social development of young people is of the utmost importance to me; so too is the existence of an awarding system which is robust and capable of delivering results which can be judged reliable. Integrity must lie at the heart of education and examinations.

This open letter is intended to provoke debate and raise challenging questions. I have no desire to participate in political posturing or to condemn the UK awarding bodies. In common with other school leaders I know that those who work at the highest levels in such institutions have a genuine desire to deliver excellence but current performance reflects that old cliché from school reports of old… “could do better.” I also hope to address some misconceptions about the alleged lack of professionalism of teachers and their expertise in establishing standards.

Significant emphasis in our public discourse in the UK has understandably, and in my view crucially, been placed on unpicking the chaos of students being awarded one set of grades on Thursday 13th August and another on the evening of Monday 18th August. This has placed the universities and their admissions officers in very difficult positions as some students have been admitted to courses despite having final lower grades than other students who were initially downgraded from their Centre Assessed Grade (CAG).

I hope that centralised funding from the UK government is coupled with immediate interventions from the devolved institutions to enable additional places to be made available in both 2020 and 2021 as a minimum.

In the midst of the media furore a certain group has passed almost unnoticed and unacknowledged. Who are these “lost students?” They are the students who are about to enter Year 14, their final year at school and the second year of their A level courses. How are the gaps in their educational experience going to be filled and how can government and awarding bodies ensure that the summer of 2021 is not marked by yet more mayhem? The analysis which follows is based around the situation of 80% of the class of 2021 as 80% represents the percentage of examinations regulated in NI by the local awarding body, CCEA.

The final A level grade for a CCEA student is made up of two elements:

  • AS level worth 40% and completed in Year 13
  • A2 level worth 60% and completed in Year 14

This year, the provisional AS grades published on the 13th of August, were withdrawn after being described as “phantom grades” with school leaders, teachers, parents and students directed to regard the grades as worthless; the grades would not influence, in any way, the final A level award in 2021. In place of these “phantom grades” the Centre Assessed Grades were awarded to candidates. Additionally, it was announced that in the final year of A level study (2020/21) students had a choice between sitting 60% of their A level in one year i.e. the A2 element or sitting 100% of the A level in one year i.e. the AS and the A2 elements. Apparently an algorithm (whoever thought this word would have become so familiar and so mocked?) would be applied to guarantee fairness.

If a student opted to concentrate solely on the A2 year, sitting 60% of the A level an algorithm would be applied to predict what they would have achieved in the 40% AS qualification if they had chosen to sit this qualification (or crucially if they had not had the opportunity to sit the award in 2019-20 removed from them).

The above scenario generates a question of critical importance.

If 100% of A level grades in 2020 were Centre Assessed Grades because the results initially generated by the algorithm were judged unfair to candidates how could there be confidence in the application of an algorithm to estimate how a young person who sat 60% of the examination might have fared if they had chosen to, or had the opportunity to, sit 100% of the award?

I am looking forward to welcoming back our Year 14 students next week. Our usual programme is to outline the plan for the year ahead, finalise UCAS applications, set individual targets for A2 based on AS grades, advise on possible AS resits … but what do we do this year? How do I, members of my pastoral teams and my subject teachers answer the following likely questions?

  • Why do I have a Centre Assessed grade if it is a phantom grade?
  • If it is a worthless phantom grade why was the CCEA algorithm generated grade replaced by the Centre Assessed grade?
  • Is there actually any point in having an AS grade?
  • How do I decide whether to concentrate on A2 work (60% of the overall qualification) or whether to try to complete the AS material in addition to A2?
  • How can it be possible to complete AS and A2 work which represent 18 months of study when I was not in school from mid-March of 2020?
  • If my friend and I begin with the same notional AS grade (let’s say an A) and I choose to sit 100% (AS&A2) and she sits only 60% (A2) but she is awarded an A* and I get an A grade does that mean I made the wrong decision?
  • Might the opposite be true? Could I be advantaged by completing both AS & A2?
  • Will I be disadvantaged in August 2021 because I have to compete against students who have been guaranteed a place for university in 2021 because the 2020 fiasco of the unlucky 13th of August results saw them rejected by universities?
  • Will I have to achieve higher grades than a student awarded a Centre Awarded Grade in 2020 to gain a place on the same course?
  • What happens if there is disruption to my education in my school due to a localised lockdown but other students experience no such disruption?
  • How are the A levels ever going to be fair?

In truth, the questions above will only proliferate as our students return to school and evaluate their situation. They are mature and thoughtful young people who rightly believe they (and others) deserve a fair and equal society and at present their voices are not being heard. If we are to avoid the tired phrases of 2020 “these are unprecedented times” “the algorithm has produced some anomalies in results” and “it’s inevitable some students will be disappointed” being repeated in 2021 we need to deal with certainties and uncertainties.

We CANNOT be certain that some young people will not have their education further disrupted by Covid-19.

We CANNOT be certain that equality of outcome can be achieved between those sitting 60% and those sitting 100% of the qualification.

What can we identify as CERTAINTIES?

  • A level and GCSE grades have been awarded in 2020 based on CAG and young people are transferring successfully to universities and to Key Stage 5 study at A level, BTEC etc.
  • UCAS will (and has for decades!) make offers based on predicted grades from schools.
  • Schools can generate a rank order for an examination cohort (which is what examiners do…they don’t award grades) based on a range of valid standardised data such as GCSE point scores, AS Centre Assessed grades, mock examinations based on past papers/ published mark schemes, regular past paper questions etc.
  • Schools can measure their “value added” from GCSE to AS to A2 and can provide the results of previous cohorts of students as they moved through Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5.

There has been much comment (often cynical in tone) to the effect that teachers routinely “over predict” grades yet UCAS manages to place UK based applicants to universities based on these predictions. Surely that suggests some validity. Teachers also understand that there is a distinction between a UCAS prediction which may require some “generosity of spirit” as the prediction is made in August / September, can involve high tariff courses such as Medicine and is related to an individual and a Centre prediction which is linked to a rank order. The prediction of a grade is a complex issue and usually takes place following AS level examinations and results. Teachers will review performance in each unit, assessing proximity to grade boundaries. If a student is applying for a course requiring A* A  A  and a student gained AAAB (Maths, Biology, Chemistry, Physics)  at AS the teachers will check how secure the A grade is in each unit. As AS is only worth 40% of the final A level grade a very low A grade (i.e. just over the grade boundary for an A) could drop to a B grade at A2 if the student does not raise the quality of his/her work.

Our hypothetical student drops Physics which was the B grade.

Chemistry was the lowest A grade and is required for the candidate’s chosen course; AS Chemistry has 3 units and the candidate scored ACA. In the unit awarded a C grade the student was 7 marks off the B grade but had attained full marks in the other units. The student agrees with the teacher that a resit of the C unit is required and a photocopy of the examination script is obtained from CCEA. An analysis of the paper enables the student to understand the mistakes made and a target of a high A in this unit is set for the summer examination series. It is now a valid prediction to predict an A* in Chemistry as the young person had 12A* grades at GCSE and is predicted A in Biology and A* Mathematics. Remember that the student attained full marks (100%) in 2 out of 3 units in Chemistry and an A* at A2 is 90%.

On results day the student achieves A* in Maths, A in Biology and A in Chemistry and gains a place at the second choice university. This is then called over prediction but in 2 out of 3 subjects the predictions for UCAS were correct.

The UCAS predictions must be made early in Year 14. A CAG for the student will be generated by the school following the mock examinations in the Spring term of Year 14. Students who have coursework as a key element of their subject will have almost completed the work. These predictions are shared with CCEA not UCAS. Our hypothetical student had not made the hoped for progress in Chemistry and achieved ABA in the mock examinations. A programme of revision is agreed for those elements of Chemistry still not assessed at A standard. The predicted grades are modified to A Chemistry, A* Biology and A* Mathematics. The A* in Biology would be categorised by some as over prediction but is valid in the Spring term as the student had an excellent AS performance, an A* mock examination result and a series of outstanding end of module tests.

The above example is lengthy and detailed but hopefully illustrates that teachers know their students, that progress is not wholly predictable and that teachers can predict grades in a way which is valid for both UCAS and CCEA. Teachers in Northern Ireland are a highly-qualified group of professionals with a strong belief in the value of education who approach challenges such as this year’s with integrity and a determination to “get things right” at an individual and Centre level.

If the Covid 19 pandemic has shown us one thing it is the fragility of the examination system, a system which in many respects has seen little change over the decades. Perhaps in the “new normal” we will move towards a system which will value the academic competence of teachers, acknowledge their insight and integrity and trust their genuine knowledge of students. The Year 14 students face uncertainty and the Year 12 students are returning to school as CCEA announces they are beginning “consultation” with schools regarding the content of next year’s GCSE examinations. It does NOT inspire confidence at a time when there are very genuine concerns regarding students’ mental health following the lockdown. If we value our students over a “system” and “standards” then we should focus in 2020/21 on what we know we can do. If we value the “system” and “standards” over students we are focusing on what we don’t know and can’t plan for adequately.

I urge our devolved assembly to engage in open debate with school leaders, parents, pupils and CCEA and to plan for certainties schools can deliver. Our young people represent the future. They deserve our best efforts.

Last modified: April 26, 2021