Britain’s equalities watchdog has warned it will intervene in the controversy over the handling of A-level results in England after students from disadvantaged backgrounds were worst hit while private school pupils benefited the most.
The release of A-level results on Thursday revealed that the largest share of rises in A* and A grades in England had gone to independent schools, with two privately educated pupils receiving an extra A* for every one at a state secondary.
Nearly 40% of teachers’ recommended grades – 280,000 in total – were downgraded, it was confirmed. Deprived pupils were more likely to have seen those grades lowered by Ofqual’s algorithm, and the gap in results between pupils on free school meals and better-off pupils widened compared with 2019.
While grades improved overall, claims of bias triggered an outcry from headteachers and students, some of whom reported dropping from a predicted A to an E or from a C to a U.
At Wales high school, Rotherham, where 84% of students saw their teacher-assessed grades lowered, 18-year-old Anna Hogarth said: “In years to come we’re always going to be the year that didn’t count. The pandemic year.”
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, acknowledged the danger that an “exceptionally high-performing child in a low-performing school” would not get their expected grades. But Boris Johnson later insisted the results were “robust” and “dependable”.
More than 200,000 sixth formers in England received their results on Thursday, decided for the first time this year by a statistical model developed by Ofqual, the exams regulator, to replace exams cancelled during lockdown.
In a rare intervention, Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), said Ofqual must “remove bias” and allow students to appeal directly if they feel their A-level grades have been unfairly reduced.
The EHRC has told Ofqual it must mitigate against any “potential negative affect” of its process on ethnic minorities and disabled children, as well as those from deprived backgrounds.
“Ofqual should be clear about the impact of the algorithm used in the standardisation model and the steps taken to remove bias and take into account equality,” Hilsenrath said.
“To better understand any disparities for different protected groups, Ofqual must publish a full breakdown of the differences between teacher-assessed grades and the final grade. Students who have been downgraded must be able to appeal directly if they believe their grades are unfair. We will continue to discuss this with Ofqual and consider all our powers so that ethnic minority and disabled children, for example, are treated fairly in this process.”
Scotland was forced into a reversal this week after a quarter of exam results were downgraded from teachers’ recommendations. All 124,000 changed results were reinstated, it was announced on Tuesday.
Labour’s leader, Keir Starmer, said on Thursday that “something has obviously gone horribly wrong with this year’s [English] exam results” and a Scotland-style U-turn should not be ruled out.
“Nearly 40% of young people have had their grades marked down and that’s thousands of young people whose opportunities could have been dashed. Parents, teachers and young people are rightly upset, frustrated and angry about this injustice,” he said.
“The system has fundamentally failed them. The government needs to urgently rethink. We need to guarantee the right to individual appeals, the fee for appeals waived and nothing to be ruled out, including the U-turn that was forced on the Scottish government.”
Williamson suggested that exam boards responsible for administering the A-levels should encourage schools to appeal against their results if they feared disadvantaged candidates were affected.
Johnson insisted he had confidence in Williamson, prompting Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, to respond on Twitter: “Nobody else does.” Speaking during a trip to Belfast, the prime minister added: “Let’s be in no doubt about it: the exam results that we’ve got today are robust, they’re good, they’re dependable for employers.”
But many headteachers and education experts have joined the chorus of complaints about the way A-levels had been decided, with some pointing to flaws in Ofqual’s system that favoured private schools in particular.
Analysis by the FFT Education Datalab showed that the quirk in Ofqual’s method – which relied heavily on teacher assessments for grading very small classes with up to five pupils – resulted in higher grades for less popular subjects such as German or music, and for schools that had much smaller average course entries.
About one in 10 A-level entries from independent schools were in subjects in which the schools entered just five or fewer students. In contrast, state academies – the largest school type – had just one entry in 20 within small classes. Sixth form and further education colleges had A-level course sizes more than three times as big as the average private school.
Ofqual’s data showed that 49% of entries by students at private schools in England received an A grade or above, compared with 20% awarded to students at state academies or comprehensive schools.
Natalie Perera, executive director of the Education Policy Institute, said: “There are early signs that the results process may have had a disproportionately negative impact on the most disadvantaged students. It is crucial that we establish whether this is the case as new data emerges.”
Sammy Wright, a member of the government’s Social Mobility Commission and the vice-principal of Southmoor Academy in Sunderland, said: “The Social Mobility Commission believes the process of calculating grades for these students has led to significant unfairness. We therefore call on Ofqual to allow every school to submit whole-school appeals using their own evidence where they see fit, and not only in exceptional circumstances.
“We recognise that allocating grades this year has been a uniquely difficult task. But we see that there are many inequalities in the process.”
A string of headteachers were also joining the protest, including the headteacher of Sir William Borlase’s grammar school, a leading state school in Buckinghamshire, who said she was “bitterly disappointed that the system has let many of our students down”.
“We will challenge this decision to ensure students from our school and students from schools across the area and country receive the results they deserve,” Kay Mountfield, the school’s head, said.
But the day did include many high points for pupils, especially those who gained from Ofqual’s allocation of more A* and As, with girls overtaking boys in gaining the top grades in England.
Brampton Manor Academy, a state school in east London with a highly selective sixth form, was celebrating its pupils securing 47 confirmed places at Oxford and Cambridge, up from 39 last year.
Ian Bauckham, an Ofsted board member, said results were up “across the board”, including for disadvantaged candidates. “Any statistical model, however well intentioned it is and however good the overall outcomes are, is going to produce anomalies,” he said.