UK: Government must ensure fairer qualifications system for A-level exams

published 25 August 2020 updated 31 August 2020

UK education unions have criticised the government’s poor handling of the A-level results system, that led to uncertainty and anxiety among students.

The NASUWT and National Education Union (NEU) have both raised concerns over the stress on students and educators in the recent A-level grades U-turn by the UK Government. In mid-August, it was announced that A-level results in England were to be based on teachers’ predictions rather than an algorithm.

In Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales, results were also chaotic. In Northern Ireland for example, students were awarded the highest grade either predicted by the teacher or the official system – that was also a U-turn.

NASUWT: No young person’s life chances should be compromised

“Pupils have faced an enormous amount of uncertainty and anxiety over the arrangements for receiving their A-level grades and their options if they are unhappy with their results,” noted NASUWT General Secretary Patrick Roach.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has created challenging conditions for students, schools, and colleges, “at the centre of this latest political storm are those young people whose futures have been left unacceptably at the mercy of last-minute decision-making by Ministers”, he said. “No young person’s future life chances should be compromised as a direct consequence of the decision this year to cancel examinations due to the pandemic … by a set of circumstances outside their control.”

Attention on next year’s exams

“The Government’s mishandling has undermined public confidence at this critical time,” he added. “The calamity that has been left to unfold over recent days has impacted not only on those young people who were receiving their awards this year, but also the confidence of the thousands of pupils who are now preparing for examinations next year.”

Roach concluded by maintaining that lessons should be learned on how best to secure a more resilient qualifications system which recognises fairly the achievements of all students next year and in future years.

NEU: Acknowledge work of educators and students

Mary Bousted, NEU Joint General Secretary and member of the Education International Executive Board, said the work of educators and students should not be forgotten.

“The politics of results season 2020 has drowned out the most important point - that students must be congratulated for their hard work and patience through a difficult time for the whole nation. Teachers and school and college leaders have tried their best, during a time of great uncertainty, to support and help the young people they teach. They have been let down by a poor system and last-minute political decisions.”

U-turn was the right decision

However, she said Education Minister Gavin Williamson had finally done the right thing in relation to the Government’s U-turn on A-level exam grades. “The pity is that he has done so having exhausted all other options. Students and their teachers have endured days of completely unnecessary stress and worry.”

Indeed, for many students, this announcement will generate further uncertainty if they have been rejected from their first-choice course, and university, on the basis of the inaccurate and unjust awarding process by the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual; a non-ministerial government department that regulates qualifications, exams and tests in England).

Scottish approach should apply in England

“This is a shameful episode,” Bousted said. “It must never happen again. The U-turn in Scotland includes a long-term review of the assessment methods used to award qualifications, including the possibility of more coursework and systematic, moderated teacher assessment, and it is critical that the same occurs in England.”

She added that young people have suffered enough. They have few chances in the jobs market as the country faces rising unemployment and recession, she emphasised. She also insisted that it is right that the cap on university places has been lifted, so that more young people, who have worked so hard for their A-levels, can continue their studies and fulfil their potential.

According to Bousted, one of many lessons for the government to learn “from this sorry saga” is to listen to the profession, as “the Department for Education's determination to put all eggs in one basket through a single set of summer exams has come back to haunt them. It is very much a disaster of their own making.”

Government dialogue with heads, teachers, and union representatives

Underlining that the pandemic is not over yet and the course of COVID-19 will lead to significant changes in society and in education, she was adamant that “now is the time for the Government to sit down, with heads, teachers and their union representatives, to talk about how we can all deliver the best for the children we teach and restore confidence in our qualifications and exam system.

“We not only need a careful and systematic review, but an absolute assurance to next year's GCSE and A-level students that this cannot and will not happen again,” she concluded.