Government to cover cost of all A-level and GCSE results appeals in England, Gavin Williamson says

AFP via Getty
AFP via Getty

It will be free for English schools to appeal A-level and GCSE results awarded to their pupils, the education secretary has pledged, in a further U-turn after exams were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

With nearly 40 per cent of A-level results having been downgraded from teachers’ predicted grades by a government algorithm – and amid fears GCSEs could be more harshly impacted still – Gavin Williamson conceded that there would likely be a significantly higher number of appeals than usual.

Facing protests and mounting calls to resign, he said it would be “a real, shocking injustice” if pupils were “to feel they are in a situation” where there is a strong and legitimate case for an appeal but it is not made on “grounds of cost”.

Typically, exam boards initially charge schools up to £25 per appeal, but this can rise to £150 in extended cases and parents can be asked to pay the costs, which are refunded in the event of a successful appeal.

The latest about-turn comes just days after the government decided to allow schools to appeal pupils’ results at all – following warnings that not doing so would impose a “life sentence” on some pupils.

The regulator Ofqual initially said schools could only do so if they could prove that grades were lower than expected due to a change in circumstances that meant previous cohorts’ grades were not representative of this year’s results.

Concerns were immediately raised last Friday that the “narrow” criteria for challenging grades may “exacerbate existing inequalities” and result in legal action against exam boards.

In a further last-minute intervention on the eve of A-level results day, Mr Williamson announced that pupils would be able to appeal to use mock exam results instead, if they can prove the exams to have been legitimate, or to resit exams in autumn.

While the government is yet to set out how system of appealing to use mock results will work in practice, with different schools conducting mocks in significantly different ways, a Department for Education spokesperson confirmed that the process would also be free for schools.

“You will obviously have a large number of appeals,” Mr Williamson told The Times on Friday. “But I would rather have a strong, robust, fair appeals process that makes sure that youngsters get the grades that they deserve as against being in a situation where there is an injustice that carries on.”

Ofqual was forced to reject accusations of “systemic bias” on Thursday as analysis of its data showed disadvantaged pupils saw the biggest reduction in pass grades after moderation, while private schools increased the proportion of students being awarded top results by more than double that of state schools.

But the education secretary insisted there would be “no U-turn” on the grading system itself lest it “severely erode” the value of qualifications and lead to grade inflation.

Boris Johnson defended the system as “robust” and “dependable” after A-level results day, with ministers pointing to the fact that the number of A and A* grades rose to an all-time high in England of nearly 28 per cent, rising by 2.3 per cent. The number of 18-year-olds receiving a pass grade also rose.

An under-fire Mr Williamson launched a bold attack on the system in Scotland, where Nicola Sturgeon ceded to pressure to allow students to use the grades predicted by their teachers, as having led to “rampant grade inflation”.

“There’s been no checks and balances in that system; it degrades every single grade as a result and in-bakes unfairness,” he said.

Following the decision to trail his department’s latest last-ditch policy announcement to The Times, which operates a paywall, Mr Williamson faced further calls to resign, with the Liberal Democrats saying free appeals will be of “cold comfort” to pupils.

“For the young people who have worked so hard to not get the results they deserve, through no fault of their own, this announcement alone will be cold comfort,” the party’s education spokesperson Layla Moran said.

“While this should never have been needed, it is right the government has listened to the Liberal Democrats and others and U-turned.

“Ministers must also now ensure that pupils are able to appeal directly, present evidence that reflects their performance and progress, and are provided clear guidance on how re-sits will work.

“Ultimately, after Gavin Williamson’s botched handling of the process thus far, pupils will have no confidence in him to fix the broken glass. Before he causes any more hurt, he must go.”

Those within his own party also voiced concerns, centred around the apparent unfair penalisation of disadvantaged students, calling on the government watchdog to publish details of its algorithm. The Conservative chairman of the Commons Education Committee, earlier expressed concern that Ofqual’s model to moderate A-level results penalised disadvantaged students.

He called on the regulator to publish details of the algorithm it used to make its calculations.

“I am worried about it because some figures suggest that disadvantaged students have been penalised again,” Tory chair of the Commons education committee Robert Halfon told BBC Radio 4.

“I am also worried about further education colleges, because they have been improving in recent years and yet they seem also to have suffered under this grading system.

“If the model has penalised disadvantaged groups this is very serious and if it has disadvantaged colleges that has to be looked at. Ofqual will have to adjust the grades.”

Defending the need for its algorithm, Ofqual said that a “rare few centres” put in “implausibly high judgments”, which angered some headteachers and unions who viewed it as laying blame at the feet of teachers.

The Department of Education said it nothing to add to Mr Williamson’s announcement at the time of publication.

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