Letter to Education Secretary about impact in Brighton

Dear Gavin,

I am writing to pass on the concerns about this summer’s exam results, shared with me by headteachers from schools and colleges in my constituency, by parents and by students. 

I have spent the day writing up and responding to desperate emails from people in despair at the way their futures have been mishandled.  The news of your u-turn has just broken following the news that Wales would be awarding teacher predicted grades and the widespread condemnation of the algorithm that so unfairly penalised tens of thousands of students.

Given the rushed and botched way that decisions have been taken, I am writing to you so that you have an insight and record of the views being put to me from my constituency.  I hope this will prove useful for the reflection and learning and next steps that must urgently take place following this fiasco.

There must be an independent review into how this entirely predictable crisis was allowed to happen, as well as urgent consideration of how to transform this country’s approach to assessment and qualifications, based on global best practice. 

The view from local headteachers is clear – prior to the u-turn, your approach penalised students and made a mockery of your promise that no individual would suffer as a result of the cancellation of exams.

It is clear that Sixth form and FE colleges in particular were hit unfairly with the lowest rise in grade increases. While Independent schools saw a 4.7% rise in A*-A grades on last year, FE/SFCs only had a 0.3% rise. Value added outcomes have also slumped under the unfair algorithm that was used to calculate grades.

One college explained that it submitted a set of Centre Assessed Grades (CAG) to the exam boards that were in line with previous year outcomes and which reflected the strength of the cohort. However, the exam board standardisation process suppressed 33% of final grades against those submitted. More worryingly, the results were also suppressed against last year’s outcomes and the three-year average. Their A*-B grades were 4.7% down on last year (67.2% in 2020 but 71.9% in 2019) and 1.45% down against the three-year average. They also report that the Centre Assessments BTEC outcomes were downgraded and results were below previous year outcomes. This year’s BTEC pass rate was 97.5%, down from 99.2% last year with the high-grade rate 49.7%, significantly down from the 76.3% three-year average.

A modern foreign languages teacher told me that of the 101 exam grades submitted, 53.5% were downgraded, with the final results not only reducing the grades but ignoring the teachers’ ranking too.  She explained that this meant there was no reflection of any progress made since GCSE and writes: 

"My heart breaks for a student with low GCSE score who worked very hard. I predicted her a C but she was awarded an E. This will stop her going to her chosen course, to teach sport with a minor in French. I have taught many students and this girl is really not an E grade student. She is honestly a C grade student. She is one of many examples I could give you."

The colleges and schools with which I am in touch have been working round the clock preparing to submit appeals and supporting students to secure their destination pathways. Before the u-turn announcement, they faced an uphill struggle, with no clarity about the appeals process and with the option of autumn exams only creating further uncertainty and delay for students.  One student’s message to me set this out incredibly clearly and powerfully as follows:

"Despite getting a high A grade last year in my Maths A level, my CAG/teacher grades of a B for Further Maths and a B for Physics were downgraded this summer by the Government to two Cs. I have lost my university place at Bath to study Maths as a result. I’m now faced with the chaos of an appeals process, no university this year, even if I’m successful - and potentially taking the examinations again in October with only ten weeks to prepare and no support from my college. I am devastated and baffled that this has happened."

One of many parents I could quote explained the following, setting out the need for CAGs as the only fair option for their son:

"He can’t use a mock exam result as they didn’t sit one. He could resit in October. But he hasn’t had any teaching since March and it’s only a few weeks away. How is he or any child meant to get exam fit in that time."

Another parent said:

"We’ve lost all faith in OfQual’s ability to be fair and rational. 

“BASHVIC submitted a C as x's Centre Assessed Grade - based on their tracking throughout the year. It's been downgraded to an E. As a consequence, x can no longer attend Sussex University for a three-year accountancy course."

Brighton Pavilion is not alone - institutions across England have concluded that their grades have been incorrectly standardised down. There’s also widespread consternation at the lack of consultation with education professionals prior to adopting a policy that significantly impacts on every young person taking exams in this exceptional year. 

It is a relief that you have been forced into doing the right thing. Local heads tell me that the CAG process was much more robust than the Government’s scheme, for example, and are prepared to set out in further detail what a fair and consistent model would look like and why mock results, which are unreliable, should not form the basis of any fair grades assessment.

However, the option of re-sitting the exams at a time convenient to them should still be open for students unhappy with their predicted grades. 

It is difficult to comprehend why thousands of A Level students have been forced to face totally avoidable injustice and despair over recent days.  We must have urgent clarity from Government over lost university places that have been allocated elsewhere following this monumental bungling of young people's results and futures.

Today's u-turn will be a huge relief to the over 100,000 GCSE students waiting for their results this Thursday.  At least they will be spared the scandal of failed leadership inflicted on A Level students. 

I am aware that awarding CAG grades is not a cost free solution but it was clear from stakeholder leaders like Dr Simon Hyde, the incoming Headmasters’ and Headmistress’ Conference general secretary, that this is the “only way now to stop this intolerable strain on students and teachers”. The unavoidable outcome of some grade inflation is the less bad option when the alternative is tens of thousands of unfair grades, bias against the state sector, no clear appeals process; and the critical need to focus time and energy on safely reopening schools in two weeks' time.

I would like to stress that schools and colleges made it very clear to me that they do not have staffing capacity to manage an appeals process that relies on individual students raising individual appeals. The main priority right now should be on opening in September in a Covid-secure way and this is a huge task in itself. 

Despite today's change in policy, I felt compelled to write to you about the harm and distress over which you have presided.  To have caused such chaos, anger and confusion for tens of thousands of young people is a major failure of leadership that will have repercussions for many lives, not least where university or other places have been lost.  That scandal is a resigning matter - to show you understand the hurt caused and to allow an opportunity for some confidence to be restored in education at this critical time, I urge you to step down.

I look forward to your response 

Yours sincerely,

 

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