What a mockery!

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Today it was announced that A-level and GCSE students in England would be guaranteed to achieve a grade which was no lower than their ‘mock’ grade.

This begs a number of questions. Firstly, how accurate is a mock grade? Many of us have heard countless times the expression “it’s only the mocks”. As one Newcastle 18-year-old who is waiting for A level results tomorrow said:

“Mocks aren’t meant to be used like final exams, no one revises for mocks like the actual A-levels. Mocks are used as a method to find what you’re weakest at so you can improve: they shouldn’t be used instead of exams.”    

There is a real concern here about fairness. As expressed by a concerned parent in the North East: “it penalises people who have always shone at the last minute.”

I spoke to an experienced teacher in Newcastle who told me: “I think basing the exam result on mock exams which took place in January/ February is not a true reflection of the students’ ability and the result they may have obtained. Typically, our students would go up at least one grade between mock and real exams (looking at results of the past three years).”

Secondly, how do mock exams work across different schools? The truth is that systems and processes vary. At the time of setting up the mock exams it was generally not envisioned that we would be in the position of comparing these results now, as it was widely assumed that exams would take place as normal.

No public examinations took place this year due to the ongoing Covid-19 situation. Instead grades were initially determined by teacher assessment based on previous work, coursework and so on. Students and parents were assured that this was the system.

It was later announced that grades would be subject to moderation, determined by an algorithm which took account of students’ past results, the school’s history of results and predicted grades. How does this system work for schools that have recently made improvements?

A recent report featured Elroy Cahill, headteacher of Kingsley Academy, Hounslow, a school which has made recent rapid progress, who said:

“We’re a different school from two to three years ago, but those children will now be stuck with the outcomes that the school has had historically…It’s just awful.”

Earlier this week it was reported that in Scotland 124,000 students were downgraded as a result of the moderation process. This amounts to around 25 per cent of the students. Additionally, it was reported that students from poorer backgrounds were penalised the most, and by a considerable amount. This led to student protests with placards portraying messages like ‘Judge my work, not my postcode’ and ‘Stop the postcode lottery’.

Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland apologised to the Country on Monday and assured people that there would be a review.

Today John Swinney, Education Minister for Scotland announced a reversal. He told MSPs: “Using powers available to me in the Education (Scotland) Act 1996, I am today directing the SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority) to reissue those awards based solely on teacher or lecturer judgement.”

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In England, with A-level students due to receive their grades tomorrow, it has been shown that almost 40 per cent of grades would be downgraded using Ofqual (Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation)’s algorithm and data.

Today we heard about changes in England. It was announced that ‘A-level and GCSE students in England are being promised their final results will be no lower than their mock exams.’ The Department for Education (England) have described something known as a ‘triple lock’: the best grade out of their mock exam, their estimated grade and an optional exam taken in the autumn will be used as the student’s actual exam grade.

As yet we have not seen any detail as to how this will work. Exams in the autumn? As one local parent pointed out: “’if you don’t like it, plan to resit in autumn’ is inadequate when a big question mark hangs over autumn resits anyway.”

What should the Westminster government do next? A local A-level student had this to say:

“If there are enough complaints about the calculated grades then do what Scotland did for the Scottish Highers.”

Another student who studies at Newcastle University and who completed his A-levels two years ago added:” Whatever happens, these kids have been failed massively. Many will arrive at uni without feeling any sense of achievement, because they will always be the Covid-19 cohort. If it was me, I just know I wouldn’t feel like I got there on merit. Combine that with online lectures, limited socialising (which is critical for people moving away from home) and I think you’re looking at a mental health catastrophe.”

It is indeed a worrying time for students, parents and teachers. Surely this is a time when we have a national need for calmness, reassurance, and support for our young people? Maybe it is also a time for trusting our professionals? In the words of a Newcastle teacher:

“As a teacher, I feel the exam board and the government, again, are not treating us as professionals whose judgement can be trusted. It is extremely frustrating and disappointing! What was the point of asking us if they’re going to then alter (lower, let’s be honest!) the grades we took great pains in awarding?”

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