Harrogate headteacher fears results U-turn will create problems for years to come after 'inexplicable' downgrading

The executive headteacher of Harrogate Grammar School has slammed the "unfair and inexplicable" downgrading of students' exams results and warned the government U-turn will only create problems in the system for years to come.

Thursday, 20th August 2020, 12:25 pm

Richard Sheriff, who is also chief executive of Red Kite Learning Trust which has 13 schools in Yorkshire, is calling for an urgent review into the government's handling of this year's A-levels and GCSEs which were thrown into chaos after exams were cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The government's decision to give students grades estimated by their teachers, rather than via an algorithm, means that thousands of A-level students in Harrogate may now have the grades to trade up to their first-choice university offers.

But it has prompted concerns over the availability of places, with Mr Sheriff warning it could leave a long-term trail of flaws in the assessment and admissions systems.

Richard Sheriff, the executive headteacher of Harrogate Grammar School.

"I do not welcome the U-turn because it is the result of a flawed system which has caused huge upset for young people," he said.

"However, in the circumstances, it is the best solution we can hope for and is a huge improvement on the very unfair and inexplicable grading system introduced by Ofqual.

"We have replaced one set of issues with another and the challenge now is providing access to university because halls of residents and lecture theatres are quickly filling up.

"The U-turn moves things along the line, but the problem is still going to be there for a long time."

Exams regulator Ofqual first came under fire last week when data showed it had downgraded around 37 per cent of A-level grades in Harrogate.

The government then decided on Monday - four days after A-level results were issued - to revert to teacher assessed grades rather than the algorithm.

Mr Sheriff said the idea of the algorithm was good in principle, but he now wants a review into how it went "so dreadfully wrong".

"It is not just a grade," he said. "It is a young person with a life chance ahead of them.

"And without a doubt this has damaged faith in the system. It will be difficult, but it is possible to restore that confidence.

"We do need to be generous and fair because these results are not the outcome of anyone's plan, they're the outcome of the coronavirus pandemic.

"This is one gross symptom of it and we have to think in the context of where we are now. "

Education bosses at North Yorkshire County Council say they are now working with students to provide advice and information on their next steps.

Stuart Carlton, the council's corporate director of children and young people’s services, welcomed the U-turn and said students can now look ahead "with some optimism.”

He said: “We know schools in North Yorkshire used rigorous processes in assessing these grades, taking into account mock exam results - as well as non-assessed work such as homework and class work - and went to great lengths to produce fair and accurate results.

“Schools, supported by our education advisers, will continue to provide support to A-level students in need of advice on their university applications."

What were the issues with the algorithm?

Ofqual's algorithm faced criticism for penalising disadvantaged students and benefiting private pupils.

And schools and colleges with more students reportedly saw more grades downgraded than those with less.

Nationally, around 40 per cent of A-level grades had affected state schools more than private institutions.

Which grades can now be used?

A-level and GCSE students can use the grades submitted by schools and colleges to exam boards.

The Ofqual algorithm was designed to moderate grades to relatively reflect previous years. But after a public outcry over inconsistencies in grading, students can now keep their calculated grade from exam boards.

And if their schools' original estimated grade was higher, then they can use that result.

Can appeals still be made?

Students were told that they could use the highest result out of their calculated grade from exam boards, their mock exam or sitting an actual exam in the autumn.

But the government has now said mock exam results will no longer be a key part of the appeals process for A-level and GCSE students.

It means students can sit exams in the autumn if they are unsatisfied with both their calculated grade and centre assessment grade.

Full guidance on appeals has not yet been published, but exam boards are under pressure as the UCAS deadline for applicants to meet their offer conditions is 7 September.

Will universities admit students who now have their grades?

The government has said it will remove restrictions on admissions to help more students progress.

It comes after calls for greater flexibility from universities in admitting students to courses.

However, there are fears that increased numbers will cause a lack of capacity, staffing, accommodation and facilities.

Some students who have now secured their first choice after the U-turn may be asked to defer their place by a year if there is no space left on their preferred course.

What will happen with BTEC grades?

Students and teachers are calling for urgent clarity on how the U-turn announcement will affect BTEC students.

The government said he is hopeful that the changes extend to the vocational qualifications.

By Jacob Webster, Local Democracy Reporter