In this blog, our Social Mobility Lead, Professor Sonia Blandford, talks us through the current thinking behind the Government’s recently announced triple lock for A level exams.

2020 is a year like no other with the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 on health, education, the economy, and employment. For all of the c. 250,000 A level candidates taking 700,000 exams in England, irrespective of their school or socioeconomic status the impact has been profound. The Secretary of State announced on 20 March that there would be no exams in 2020 and ‘The exam boards will be asking teachers … to submit their judgement about the grade that they believe the student would have received if exams had gone ahead.’ He added there would be controls ‘to ensure that the distribution of grades follows a similar pattern to that in other years, so that this year’s students do not face a systematic disadvantage as a consequence of these extraordinary circumstances.’ The reality is that students will face disadvantage from these controls.

Following a significant policy change in Scotland whereby the Scottish government moved from a centralised system to teacher predicted grades, upgrading results for 76,000 students. On the eve of students receiving their exam results, the Department for Education announced a “triple lock” – results will be the highest out of their estimated grades, their mocks and an optional written exam in the autumn.

The justification for the change given by Nick Gibb- Minister of State for School Standards- is that no student should be disadvantaged,an extra safety net for a small group of pupils’, the vast majority of students would feel ‘content’ with their results.

The fundamental reason as to why students sit A -levels is to improve life chances, through access to higher education, apprenticeships, or business training programmes.  A-levels are a passport to a better qualification, training, or career.  Alongside the International Baccalaureate and BTEC qualifications they reflect the aspirations, attainment, and achievements of each individual candidate in each subject studied.  In the early 20th century, Labour educationalists believed that only exams could ensure that underprivileged children were treated fairly. Since then, we have only gathered more evidence about the equalising power of exams.  In 2020, with exams cancelled what is the value of the ‘triple lock’ approach when the solution may have rested with teacher assessment or would predicted grades impact negatively on disadvantaged students?

Lock #1, standardised assessment (introduced from March 2020)

The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) regulates qualifications, examinations, and assessments in England. As explained by the Higher Education Policy Institute (12th August 2020) the standardised approach adopted by Ofqual is the Direct Centre-level approach, in essence ranking students by school.

Ofqual consulted schools, teachers, and parents before outlining the approach it would require exam boards to follow. its most radical innovation was the requirement for schools not only to propose grades for each student but also within each grade band for each subject to rank all students in order – with no ‘second equals’ or similar rankings.

It has been predicted that up to 40% of results have been downgraded. The only thing that counts is the ranking. Students are judged not on their merits, but on the merits of previous cohorts from the same school.

At this point teacher assessments of grades are largely irrelevant.

Lock #2 (introduced 11th August 2020), appeal using Mock exams

Replacement A-level grades ‘no lower than mock exams’

Schools will be able to appeal on behalf of an individual or cohort of students if they are unhappy with the result. Schools know the results today; students will expect that they will be able to appeal. The decision will be taken by the school, not the student.

The decision by the Education Secretary for England (which will apply to GCSEs as well), to allow A level Mock Exams to determine the grade if a student is unhappy with your result is questionable. Mock Exams are dealt with differently by different schools and colleges – held at different times of year, use different grades boundaries, different papers, used for different tactics e.g. use of the hardest paper/ questions to jolt the complacent, marked in different ways, students provided with questions…the list goes on.

At this point teacher assessments of grades are relevant.

Lock #3 (introduced March 2020), exam resits

Schools will be able to support students to resit exams in October or November 2020.  The problem with this approach is self-evident, most students will not have completed their courses having left school in March, and most students will not have had any exam practice since Christmas 2020.  Students who embark on resits will inevitably be delaying access to university, apprenticeships, or jobs by at least a term, more likely a year, offers may not be held open for this period of time.  There are also issues related to the disruption to schools and the financial impact on exam boards

At this point teacher assessments of grades are irrelevant.

Saving a generation?

Each of the above provides a methodology that assumes that all students have the same level of support from their schools (leaders and teachers), parents and carers, universities, businesses and apprenticeship providers (FE colleges and businesses), in a context when there are significant economic issues reducing employment and training opportunities. If a generation is to be saved, it is for each university, trainer, and employer to read teacher references and reports, supported by the interview process for each candidate.  A levels are a passport, they are not the end point of a young person’s life journey.  In the wake of a system that was cancelled in March, to move from one stage to another, irrespective of the value of the process (each is questionable) may be a waste of investment.  It is the responsibility of the university, trainer, or employer to make value-based judgements based on the information they have gathered from potential students, apprentices, or employee.  It will also be their responsibility to ensure that all young people are supported as they embark on the next stage of their life.  This is an equitable approach that would enable all young people to be treated fairly.

The most constructive advice given in the last hours has been from Clare Marchant, CEO UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, encouraging students to contact their first-choice university, whilst in parallel appealing or considering a resit.  UCAS has the Clearing Plus’ system: that matches people up with courses that match them and links them to the institution and advice.  The same supportive approach could apply to employers.

Was there an alternative to the above? Preliminary findings by RISE Social Mobility Think Tank on the impact of COVID-19 emphasises the need for government ministers and officials to acknowledge the professionalism of teachers, which would have resulted in Centre Assessed Grades, whereby moderated teacher assessments of grades would be 100% relevant to determining all students outcomes.  These predicted grades may have resulted in 12% inflation, or indeed a downgrading in some disadvantaged areas – both could have been moderated through socio-economically matched peer groups. In the final analysis these would have provided a more confident way forward that could have been finalised in March.  Teacher assessment would not have made the situation any worse, this approach provides a fairer or more accurate outcome, and doesn’t require a time machine to go back to March to re-visit or replace the ‘triple-lock’ approach.

The stress created by the system for young people, their parents, teachers, and leaders has been considerable.  The results will be unfair on all students, framed by a pandemic that will determine a generation’s future. For those students who are disadvantaged or vulnerable they will need support from educators, trainers, and employers.  Ultimately, saving a generation is a shared responsibility, not dependent on a single point in time when results are not able to provide the equity and fairness predicted in the early twentieth century.



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