As Fair As Possible

As Fair As Possible

CategoryNews Author Fenella Morris KC, Jennifer Thelen Date

Following on from the Government’s announcement that all A level, AS level and GCSE exams were cancelled, we wrote about the options for a fair appeal system for students who were no longer able to rely on the tried and tested exam process for their results.

On Friday, 3 April 2020 the Department for Education released more information as to how students will be assessed in the absence of exams. The key points are:

  • Schools will be asked to calculate a “centre assessment grade” for each student. The grade is said to be a “holistic, professional judgment” and must:

reflect a fair, reasonable and carefully considered judgement of the most likely grade a student would have achieved if they had their exams this summer and completed any non-exam assessment.”

  • To reach the “centre assessment grade” schools will take into account a range of evidence including: mock exams; non-exam assessments; class or homework assignments; other records of each student’s performance over the course of study; tier of entry in tiered subjects; for those re-sitting, previous marks; AS results; the school’s past performance in the subject; and the performance of this year’s students compared to those in previous years. The grade must be reviewed by subject heads and heads of department.
  • Schools will also be asked to rank order the students within each of those grades. For example, if there are 15 students in GCSE maths who are assessed as grade 5, they need to be ranked in order from 1 to 15, with 1 being the most secure/highest attaining.
  • Where disabled students have an agreed reasonable adjustment in place, the judgment should take into account likely achievement with the reasonable adjustment in place.
  • Ofqual will consider only the grade and rank submitted by each school. The Department for Education has explained that “it is not feasible in the current circumstances for exam boards to standardise the judgements of all teachers across all subject areas before grades are submitted”.  
  • Once grades and ranks have been submitted, exam boards will carry out a process to statistically standardise the grades between different centres. This process is currently being developed, and consulted upon, by Ofqual.
  • The Ofqual process will be designed to address the fact that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to have their grades under predicted.
  • The Government confirmed that students who do not feel their calculated grade reflects their ability will be able to sit an exam as soon as reasonably possible after schools and colleges open again. In terms of the timing of that process, the Government has explained “[w]hile it cannot be guaranteed in every circumstance, Universities UK has assured us that the majority of universities will do all they can to ensure that such students who take this option are able to begin their course with a delayed start time”.
  • Schools will not be held to account with respect to this year’s exam data, e.g. by Ofsted or local authorities.

The Government has acknowledged that the process being developed is “as fair as possible”.  Implicit in that is the acceptance that the process is not at as fair as it should be, and has been, for students:

  • It remains unclear how the Ofqual process will – our could – address the risk of under prediction for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The heavy reliance on the past performance of the school would seem to point the other way.
  • The bulk of the assessment will be done at the school level, by teachers. This shift to a much more subjective system will inevitably disadvantage many students whose abilities are under-assessed by their teachers, whilst running the risk of excessive generosity to others.  It also involves assessing those students on work which was never intended to be part of their permanent record.
  • It will be very difficult to distinguish, and thus rank, between students where a large number are taking a subject.
  • The appeals process is as yet unshaped. A consultation will follow.  It has, to date, been described as “narrow”.  That must follow from the fact that the appeal will only be about what Ofqual does, not what the school does. However, the bulk of the assessment will be done by the school who will grade and rank each student and pass only that information on to Ofqual, leaving the process by which that result is reached untouchable.  Further to this, the grades and ranks provided by schools are said to be confidential (although they can be obtained by way of a subject access request after the final assessed grades are reached).
  • Schools are permitted, but not required, to take into account additional work provided by students after 20 March 2020. Students with better access to technology to continue to learn and work remotely are in a better position to complete work out of school.  Such students are likely to be from more affluent families. Thus, these students will continue to have access to ways to improve their grades, whereas others will not.  Further, while schools have been warned to be cautious in interpreting the results of work done at home they are still allowed to take it into account.  Thus, the risk remains that some students’ grades will be inflated as a result of work done at home, perhaps with more assistance than would have been received in a school environment.

Obviously, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to taking of many unprecedented decisions, the cancellation of exams being only one.  No replacement system was going to be perfect.  However, there are real questions raised about the fairness of the process.  Perhaps it is not possible, in the time available, to put in place a fairer system.  However, the limitations of the system can and should be acknowledged, so as to ensure that students and others can properly respect and rely on these results in their context.  This issue is different from the one as to the “status” of the grades – which must remain the same.  It is about openly acknowledging the inherent weaknesses of this system, given that the importance of these results for students not just now, but for their whole careers.

Fenella Morris QC
Jennifer Thelen

39 Essex Chambers
6 April 2020


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