A-level fiasco: What happened and is it now fixed?

How did the first lot of A-level results go so horribly wrong and now that the grades have been revised, is the problem finally solved?

A-level fiasco: What happened and is it now fixed?

In an article I wrote in April (check it out here), I looked at how schools were being asked to assess subjects – in particular in the arts subjects – before the now-infamous algorithm had even been mentioned as the method that Ofqual intended to use. Almost four months later, on 13th August, A-level students received their grades, and nearly forty per cent were marked lower than teachers' original assessments.

Teachers had been asked to give predicted grades for all of their students and rank them from highest to lowest achieving – even within the same grade boundary. But, rather than just taking teachers at their word (as it was assumed that teachers would inflate grades), Ofqual decided to use an algorithm to determine final grades. The algorithm factored in the schools' performances in each subject over the previous three years, and the idea was that the grades this year – even without exams – would be consistent with how schools had done in the past,  and therefore be somewhat 'representative'. 

Ofqual had claimed that this was a more accurate way of awarding grades than merely relying on teachers' assessments (the grades which have now been used as a fallback solution, but we don't mention that).

In England, thirty-six per cent of entries had a lower grade than teachers recommended, and three per cent were down two grades. Unsurprisingly, the downgrading affected state schools much more than the private sector. Private schools are usually selective, (to attend you have to take an entrance exam) and in most years will perform well in terms of exam results. An algorithm based on past performance will put students from these schools at an advantage compared with their state-educated equivalents. The system was inherently flawed, as it unfairly penalised bright students from underperforming schools, and was – rightly – accused of elitism.

Issues to overcome

Following understandable outrage after the first grades were released, Centre assessed grades (CAGs) from schools and colleges are being used instead. This means many more students will have met university offer requirements, throwing the admissions system into overdrive and introducing a number of significant problems. 

An offer from a university is a legally binding contract, and once a student has got the grades stipulated in a university's offer, there is a contract, and by law, the university has to honour it – even if the grades have been changed after results day. Thousands of students already had allocated places based on the grades calculated with the algorithm, and now universities are legally obligated to honour the offers of those who were previously turned down. 

Even without Covid-19, courses have limits on how many students they take. This is done from a practical point – there is only so much space on campus – and from a policy standpoint, as the government imposes limits on how many students can be taken on in any given year. 

However, universities in England have pledged to honour as many offers to students as possible, after reaching an agreement with the government. This will include lifting its cap on the number of students taking medicine, dentistry, teaching and veterinary courses in England this year and next year while promising extra funding for other high-cost subjects.

Some universities have also taken to suggesting alternative courses for students, or offering students the option to defer a year – neither of which are ideal. On the other hand, some universities have tried to incentivise deferring by handing out bursaries, which might make the delay a little bit more palatable.  

So what does this all mean?

In short, if you received your A-level results this year, don't panic. One scenario could be that you've got the grades you wanted, and you're heading to uni (or online uni), congratulations!

If this doesn't apply to you and you're slightly less happy, read on.

If you've received your changed Centre Assessed Grades and you still aren’t happy with them it is possible to appeal your grades. Ultimately, you were denied the chance to sit your exams, so you don't have an opportunity to know what your grades would have been, had you sat the exams as usual. You can ask your school to get a result looked at again (this is called 'requesting a review') or you can ask your school to make an appeal to Ofqual. If you are dissatisfied with your grades as they stand now, you will have the option to sit exams in October, and don't worry about getting potentially a lower grade than the one you have now, as the higher of the two will be used. 

However, there is the issue that if you decide to take the exams, in most cases it will be too late to start university this year. It feels only fair to acknowledge that you might feel slightly underprepared to take exams soon, considering that you haven't received any formal teaching since mid-March, so potentially this only appeals to a few. If you've just missed the grades needed for your firm offer, don't give up, as there's still a chance that your chosen university might still accept you considering the current climate. Whatever you do, communicate with the universities and don't just give up. Admissions departments are likely to be slightly chaotic at the moment, and a few admin errors are more than likely to occur, so make sure they have the correct data for you and if there is an issue, that they know about it. 

You have more options than you think you have. You could: 

  • Accept your insurance offer (I've had so many friends who have done this, fallen in love with their uni and haven't looked back)

  • Appeal your grades

  • 'Retake' your A-levels in October.

  • Opt for neither your firm nor insurance and going through the clearing process (I've also had many happy friends who have done this, just make sure you don't rush any big decisions and that you aren't accepting a place just because 'you have to go somewhere' – do your research and it should have a positive outcome)

  • Defer or take a gap year and reapply. Honestly, university is potentially going to be really quite bizarre this year anyway. Hopefully, it will be more normal next academic year, so if you feel like you can, taking a gap year or deferring might be for you. 

  • Re-take year 13/final year of school or college. Seems drastic, I know. I retook a year in sixth form due to illness and staying an extra year was one of the best decisions I made. This academic year has been severely disrupted due to the pandemic. Even if this academic year is also disrupted, at this point, educational institutions have had time to get their head around online teaching and therefore it won't be as frantic as the last few months of the summer term this year.

Whatever you choose to do, good luck, and remember to leave any comments you have on this topic in the comments section below.

Header Image Credit: Pixabay


Emma Beatrice

Emma Beatrice Contributor

Saxophonist, Arranger and Composer currently studying Music at the University of Birmingham.

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