A fair appeals system for GCSEs, As and A Levels in 2020

Last week, GSCE and A-level students gearing up for the national end-of-year exams had the rug pulled out from under their feet when the Government announced that GSCEs and A-level exams were cancelled.

Little is known about what will happen next, and how the work students have been doing for the better part of two years will be evaluated.  What is known is this:

  • Students will receive "calculated grades".
  • A system for reaching calculated grades is currently being developed by Ofqual in consultation with the exam boards and teacher representatives.
  • Calculated grades will take into account a range of evidence include non-exam assessment, teacher's assessment of the likely grade, prior attainment and mock results. Calculated grades will not be predicted grades.
  • Past performance of the school will be a factor taken into account. The process will include measures that reflect how much progress a student would have been likely to have made at the school they are attending.
  • The approach will be standardised between schools and colleges.
  • Pupils who do not feel their calculated grade reflects their performance will have the opportunity to sit an exam, as soon as is reasonably possible after schools and colleges open again. Students will also have the option to sit their exams in summer 2021.
  • Calculated grades awarded will be formal grades, with the same status as grades awarded in any other year.

There are real concerns about the fairness of a system which is being hastily devised in the absence of proper data or even much real life experience.  However, what is clear is that a robust appeals system is necessary to ensure that students feel that they are being treated fairly.  The Government has acknowledged that there will be an appeal system.  However, nothing has been said about what that appeal system might look like.


Historically, students unhappy with their A-level results have been able to request a re-mark or review of moderation (for internally assessed coursework).  This is a relatively discrete task.  A school can appeal a GSCE mark if it is not happy with the outcome of the re-marking process.  The appeal has two stages: a preliminary process that involves an investigation of the case, and a hearing led by an independent appeals committee.  Appeals focus on whether an awarding body has followed regulatory requirements and whether it has applied its procedures properly and fairly in arriving at judgements.  Appeals are carried out by the exam boards, although a final appeal to Ofqual's Exams Procedures Review Service is also available.

While the formulation Ofqual will use for the 2020 cohort is not known, it is clear that it will be more complex, meaning that any review or appeal of a grade will take more time and resources to process.  Further, given the novelty of the process, it seems likely that there will be more appeals than has been the case in the past.

A fair process will need to take into account the follow factors:

  • Parties to the Appeal. Until now, schools and colleges usually lodged appeals to exam boards, not students.  However, where schools either are or play a key role in the assessment, that right of appeal may need to be provided directly to students.
  • Initial assessment. The guidance issued is not clear it if will be schools or exam boards who will be conducting the initial grade assessment.  If exam boards are the initial assessor, schools will still have to prepare a significant amount of work to provide to exam boards.  Further, exam boards will need to put in place a significant amount of training to ensure that their external assessors are assessing fairly and consistently.
  • Staged Appeals. As with the current system, any appeal process will likely be staged.  The increased role of the school in awarding a grade points strongly in the direction of a need for an independent, external appeals process.  For students who do not consider that the relevant teacher/school has assessed their work and potential properly, fairness will only come in the form of an external assessment.
  • Criteria. Previously the focus of appeals was limited – procedural or assessment marking/moderation errors.  Given the broader assessment criteria, it must be the case that the scope of an appeal will increase.
  • Efficiency. For appeals to be of real benefit to students they will need to happen swiftly.  Given the likely increase in numbers of appeals, a process will have to be designed that processes appeals in time to be of use to students moving on to A-levels or university qualifications.
  • Adjudicators. Traditionally, exam boards conduct appeals.  Their expertise, and availability this year, may mean that they could play a part in any appeal process, even if they are not involved in the initial assessment processes.
  • Oral hearing. An oral hearing is often the high water mark of fairness.  Oral hearings are part of the current process.  They will no doubt continue as part of this new appeals processes, even if only as part of a second or later stage of the appeal.
  • Fees. Awarding bodies have charged fees for each stage of an appeal.  That may be more difficult to do now, particularly given the more central role of the appeal in bringing fairness to this new, untested process.
  • Reasonable adjustments and special consideration. The assessment procedures will have to provide scope to take into account reasonable adjustments and special considerations.  Necessarily the appeal process must also make room for consideration of these factors.

The Government guidance on the cancellation of GCSE and A levels in 2020 is available here. Plainly, many questions remain.