Open letter to the Secretary of State for Education and the Chief Regulator of Ofqual in response to the BTEC and A-Level exams crisis
Dear Rt Honorable Gavin Williamson CBE (Secretary of State for Education) and Sally Collier (Chief Regulator; Ofqual),
Psychologists for Social Change is a network of applied psychologists, researchers, academics, therapists and students who are interested in applying psychology to policy. We aim to generate social and political action towards a psychologically-healthier society. We felt compelled to write to you with regards to the BTEC and A-Level exam results in order to outline our concerns. We initially prepared to request a rapid revision of the application of the A-Level exam results algorithm. We are pleased to see that this process has been revised. However, our concerns about the impact of the use of the algorithm and subsequent U-turn remain.
Our concerns are as follows:
The algorithm used to award students’ A-Level grades was flawed in a way that benefited those with greater privilege and penalised those who were already disadvantaged. Data show that independent schools in England saw the greatest improvement of A* and A grades, up 4.7 percentage points. This is compared with an increase of just 1.7, 2 and 0.3 percentage points in England’s academies, comprehensives and colleges, respectively. This unfair advantage was conferred to private schools purely because the small cohort sizes meant the algorithm gave more weight to teacher predicted grades than historical data or prior student attainment. Thus, in private schools, teacher predictions were less likely to be downgraded and students who already held a privileged position in the education system were rewarded.
In comparison, Ofqual’s algorithm gave less weight to teacher predicted grades and placed greater emphasis on historic results in larger cohorts (e.g. state schools). This resulted in the downgrading of bright students in schools with a poorer record of A-Level results. These were often students attending schools in more deprived areas who were less likely to have the financial resources and support networks to take a year out and sit their A-Levels to get the results they deserve. Furthermore, the algorithm led to a considerable widening in the attainment gap between students on free school meals and those who were not, as well as those with additional learning needs and those without. Although we were pleased to see that the decision to use Centre Assessment Grades (CAGs) was made on 17th August, many students lost out on university places this academic year in the 5 days between results day and the U-turn. Thus, many students already facing additional barriers to learning were unfairly penalised and are now in a highly precarious position in terms of furthering their education.
The education system is in a weak position to support students through the exams crisis, due to years of cuts to their budgets. Many state-funded colleges and 6th Forms do not have enough staff to support students in daily learning activities and are in no position to offer additional, complex support to a large percentage of their students affected by the exams crisis. Although the algorithm is no longer being used, the psychological impact of its application still requires a compassionate response and from adequately resourced institutions and services.
Schools and colleges have been further weakened by the recent school closures and changes to systems in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Already poorly resourced teams were placed under extreme pressure to quickly adapt to changes to educational provision in the Autumn term. Staff were then forced to respond to another large crisis which occurred through the decision to employ a faulty algorithm. Despite the unprecedented levels of stress and lack of resources for the teaching workforce, many actively campaigned for the rights of their students. This additional work needs to be commended and paid for.
The impact of this combination of flaws and weaknesses directly and severely affects hundreds of thousands of young people. Young people were relying on a genuinely robust system of grade evaluation to allow them to continue on their chosen paths following the cancellation of exams in March 2020. They incurred great losses of autonomy over their future when the schools were closed in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We appreciate that the governing bodies had an enormous task in determining how to approach the problem of establishing grades for students when the education system had effectively been frozen. However, the government and Ofqual failed to use the five months between March and August to find a fair way of awarding grades. This has serious implications not only for the academic and occupational future of hundreds of thousands of young people, but also has serious implications on their mental health and their wider support networks. Given that Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services and Children’s Social Care teams are known to have been chronically underfunded by the government for many years, this is likely to lead to serious decline in the psychological wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of young people. It is unfair that young people and their support networks are burdened with the impact of the decisions made by Central Government and Ofqual.
Young people face a series of important losses as a result of the exams crisis; many had secured accommodation, scholarships and financial support in preparation for their transition to university. The futures they had worked so hard to secure suddenly disappeared and were replaced by uncertainty, fear and a lack of clarity about their options. Whilst some students may be in the position to appeal or sit their exams at a later point, many are not; they do not have the financial, emotional or social resources required to overcome these hurdles. Despite the recent decision to use CAGs, many students are still adversely affected by the exams crisis, including students who have completed BTEC qualifications.
We ask for clarity from the governing bodies about the processes open to all young people. The appeals and resit options were not formalised before the exam results were given to students, leaving them with no clear avenues to explore. This confusing situation for students and schools worsened when Ofqual released guidance on the appeals process on the 15th August, and then withdrew it hours later.
Thousands of students have suffered from the impact of the exams crisis. Many may be forced into a gap year that they did not prepare for during the UK’s deepest recession on record. We urge you to ensure that students and their families do not face financial or practical obstructions during an appeals process or if they sit the exams later this year. We are also concerned about the impact that this entire process has had and will continue to have on the teaching workforce, staff within University admissions teams and the cohort of young people who are due to sit examinations next year. We urge you to consider the importance of providing adequate psychological support and compassionate responses for all of the cohorts referred to in this letter. The combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and exams crisis has further highlighted the impact of austerity measures on the education system. We hope that academic institutions and training academies are provided with adequate funding in future budgets.
To summarise, we are deeply concerned about the impact on young people’s mental health and the both the long- and short-term impact of these decisions on our future generation and their support networks. We ask for clearly defined appeals and resit processes to ensure that all young people affected by the exams crisis are treated as fairly as possible. Universities and other further education institutions need support in managing the fall-out of the decisions made by your department and organisation. We hope that you act quickly to remediate the impact of the application of the faulty algorithm and the subsequent U-turn.
Psychologists for Social Change
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