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Summer 2020 Exam Results- the next chapter in the drama?

  • United Kingdom
  • Coronavirus
  • Education - Coronavirus


Aristotle once said “the roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet”. But as results season gets underway, for many students -and those schools and colleges where they have studied - the taste is bittersweet. With the position evolving rapidly in the run up to results days and the Governments of the various devolved administrations taking differing approaches to assessment, these have indeed proved trying times for everyone involved.

And the debate about whether the results are fair or accurate has not subsided with the release of A levels this week. Whilst the early indications are that the overall proportion of students gaining each grade has not changed significantly this year (and in some cases has increased slightly) the chorus of concerns from senior leaders in the sector continues. They assert that the statistical standardisation of results in England and Wales has adversely impacted certain cohorts of student and the way the assessment process has been handled since exams were cancelled is fundamentally unfair.

The pressure on schools and colleges is not likely to subside anytime soon. Whilst there are a range of options for a disappointed student who wants to get their results reassessed, all routes lead first to their school or college.

• Students are entitled to ask their school or college to review the results to check whether it has made a mistake when submitting their assessment grades or their rank position in the year. If there is such a mistake, it is the school or college which must ask the exam board to correct it.

• There is also a right of appeal by the school or college on the student’s behalf if it believes that the exam board has used the wrong data to calculate a student’s grade or if it believes that the exam board has used historic data for standardisation which is not a reliable means of predicting 2020 results.

• Ofqual has ruled out student appeals based on a disagreement about the gradings or rank position they have been ascribed by a school or college. If a student believes that a school or college’s judgment was influenced by factors other than academic performance however, a complaint could be brought against the institution based upon assertions of bias, discrimination or malpractice and maladministration.

• Although the last minute addition of the “triple lock” in England provides students with an alternative option (as well as re-sits) of falling back on their mock results, the means by which those will be moderated to ensure consistency across exam centres is not yet clear. It is likely though that the task of moderation will also fall to schools and colleges.

The stage is therefore set for unprecedented numbers of appeals and complaints. In order to pursue them, in many cases, students will need to request the input data which resulted in exam board’s assessments. So schools and colleges can also expect a huge up take in Data Subject Access and Freedom of Information Act requests from disappointed students (and potentially from the media or other third parties).

What is beyond doubt is that the burden created for schools and colleges by this year’s changes to the exam system, is not likely to ease in the weeks ahead.

There is a risk that if these appeals and complaints are not handled carefully and effectively relationships between schools, colleges and their student cohorts and wider stakeholders such as parents and employers, and public confidence in general, could be damaged. So too the institution’s wider reputation. Having a system in place which is robust, efficient and adequately resourced to handle these complaints and appeal requests will therefore be critical.

And the reputational risks for schools and colleges during the next phase of this year’s exam season arise not just from these direct appeals and complaint processes. The potential for related challenges is real too. If, for example, the complaints process becomes entangled with wider allegations about the standard of teaching or broader academic or pastoral support then matters could become much more complicated to deal with. Likewise if the particular circumstances of an individual student or particular student cohort lead to specific assertions that a school or college has failed to adequately address special educational needs or the requirements of Equality legislation.

As part of their preparations for the next stage in this drama, schools and college should consider how these more complex complaints would be dealt with.

Whilst the immediate risks for schools and colleges lie in these routes to appeal and complaint, the extraordinary circumstances of this year’s results season also raises the possibility that the approach taken to assessment by Ofqual and exam boards will be challenged by judicial review proceedings.

Any organisation exercising public law functions must meet public law principles of fairness, transparency, proportionality and consistency with the legal and policy framework within which it operates. Measured against this test, the statistical standardisation procedure adopted in England and Wales, the disparities in approach between devolved administrations and the way events have unfolded in recent weeks are all likely to come under very close scrutiny from those unhappy with the grades which have been awarded.

On the face of it a judicial review challenge would be focussed elsewhere. Any school or college whose exam grades are under challenge may expect to be joined in the proceedings as an Interested Party however. With all the time, cost and reputational risk that would entail.

So how can colleges and schools effectively prepare for - and handle- the potential spike in appeals and complaints alongside all the existing operational challenges brought about by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic?

1. Review your internal complaints procedure and processes now. Are they up-to-date and fit for purpose to deal with complaints which could be brought about the exam gradings?

2. Get the right people in place. Ensure you have sufficient resource to deal with complaints and requests for appeals, plus requests for data and information, efficiently effectively and within relevant timescales. And that any staff involved have appropriate training and support to cope with the demands on them from the volume of complaints.

3. Ensure you understand your insurance cover. Check the terms of your policies to ensure that, where you have appropriate cover, you are calling on it.

4. Make sure you understand the scope of your obligations under Data Protection and Freedom of Information legislation. Understanding the extent of the school or college's obligations to respond to requests for data and information – and the timescales for doing so - will be very important if you are to handle such complaints consistently, lawfully and effectively. (see our briefing - Publication of exam results: What to expect under Privacy and Information Law.)

5. Support for students. Alongside an effective strategy for confident and efficient complaint/appeals handling, schools and colleges will want to ensure that they continue to provide effective and appropriate support for students during what could continue to be a very stressful time for everyone, and bearing in mind the wider impact that the current pandemic continues to have for students mental health and wellbeing. This will include not only wellbeing support but also, for example, study progression, careers and financial guidance for future study and work.

6. Remember to manage reputation as well as practicalities. Having a plan which pre-empts as many issues as possible and is understood by all the key players will be essential if you are to preserve good relationships and the institution’s reputation. As well as covering the practical and legal issues that plan should also consider your response to any publicity surrounding the grading appeals and complaints process.

7. Governance. Finally it is crucial that governors maintain appropriate oversight and scrutiny of the current exams situation and its implications for the institution. Including that the school or college has robust and effective arrangements and processes in place to deal with complaints and appeals and wider challenges which may arise.

Perhaps it was inevitable that, in a year of unprecedented events, results days would not be the end of the drama for this year’s A level and GCSE examinations. Whatever happens next though, schools and colleges will have a central role in handling appeals and complaints from disappointed students. Devising and executing a plan which achieves that effectively will be critical if they are to emerge with relationships and reputations intact - even if Aristotle’s sweet taste of the fruit may take a little longer to return.