“If you want it to be fair you have to pay more money” – non-college students fear unjust A Level grading

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Students study with a view looking out across the city.
Photo Credit: mel_88/Pixabay

When Gavin Williamson announced in January that summer exams would once again be cancelled, Uwais, an A Level student from Yorkshire, feared the worst.

One year earlier, Uwais had been studying independently in preparation to resit his A Level exams. When exams were replaced by teacher assessments and Ofqual’s algorithm, he was among the thousands of students studying independently who were dropped by exam centres, leaving them without grades. Other private entrants, including home-schooled and resitting students, scrambled to find an exam centre or school willing to assess them at the eleventh hour, often paying inflated fees for the privilege.

Ofqual’s guidance suggests that this year ought to be different. The exam regulator has said that, similar to pupils attending schools and colleges, students studying independently should only be assessed on the content they have covered, an adjustment made to account for lost learning during the pandemic. At the beginning of March, Nick Gibb, the Minister for Schools, said he was working with exam boards to ensure the cost to private entrants would be “similar to a normal year.”

But three months after exams were cancelled, many private entrants continue to search for exam centres charging affordable fees and offering to grade candidates based only on the content they have studied. When a long-awaited list of exam centres accepting private entrants was finally published in late-March, students found that many of the listed centres’ registration deadlines had already passed. Other centres quoted students over £1,000 per subject.

“It feels like a copy and paste version of last year,” Uwais said. “Private candidates once again have just been forgotten about.”

“It is borderline discrimination”

Evelyna is studying independently for her third and final A Level and hopes to begin studying sports science at university in the autumn. She initially signed up to sit her exams with a local college. But when exams were replaced with teacher assessments the college withdrew her entry.

“I remember when the news officially came out I talked to my old college where I got my two grades last summer, and they made everything so much worse. This lady said ‘Well, you’ve only got two A Levels so you’re going to have to withdraw your UCAS application or hope for a foundation course.’ That gave me so much anxiety, it was really upsetting.”

Evelyna is entitled to extra time due to her dyslexia but has struggled to find exam centres willing to accommodate this requirement. One centre that was willing to provide extra time quoted £1,500 for the assessment of her single A Level in Psychology.

“I think it is borderline discrimination,” said Evelyna, who is now preparing for the possibility that she will have to sit her exams without extra time. “I had high expectations – Russell Group, Durham, Newcastle – and as time goes on I’m lowering those expectations a bit because it is so hard to study with all the uncertainty.”

After exams were cancelled, Mustafa was relieved when his college informed him that they could still assess him for A Level Maths, which he studies independently. But in March the college told him to prepare for the first of his two assessments, which would be conducted just one week later and based on the content covered in class, rather than the subjects Mustafa had studied.

“I already had contact with the college so I thought it be better to just go with them but if I was told earlier I would definitely have gone with another assessment centre that would have given me adequate time to revise the content,” Mustafa said. “I feel let down by college. There’s no rationality behind giving me a test where I haven’t covered all the content.”

At an Education Select Committee meeting on March 9th, Ofqual’s Acting Chief Regulator Simon Lebus said students studying independently should not be assessed on content they are not familiar with.

“If you want it to be fair you have to pay more money”

Private entrants who, unlike Mustafa, had their entries at local schools withdrawn following the cancellation of exams, have forfeited precious study time to track Ofqual guidance and search for exam centres accepting new students. Nicole, who has been unable to find an exam centre willing to assess her on the content she has covered at a cost she can afford, said she was frustrated with the lack of support for independent students.

“When I called AQA they said it was not their problem, it was the Department for Education’s or Ofqual’s,” Nicole said. “I called the Department and they said ‘it is not our responsibility, it is Ofqual’s responsibility to give you the information.’ So I then proceeded to call Ofqual and they said ‘no – it is the Department for Education.’”

“I’ve cried on the phone to AQA. It’s very frustrating. It affects me physically, because you can’t sleep, you don’t know what’s going on. You can’t focus on the stuff you’re studying.”

Finding an exam centre at late notice has been particularly challenging for students without a tutor, who often have no verified evidence of their academic ability. James*, who has received an offer from the London School of Economics, started looking for a new centre after his entry at a local school in Sheffield was withdrawn. One centre he spoke to offered to provide an assessment tailored to the content he had studied – but only if he paid an additional £400, for a total of £900 for a single A Level. Instead, he opted for a centre charging half as much but not tailoring assessments. “It seems to me like if you want it to be fair you have to pay more money,” James said.

James had hoped to switch to a local exam centre with a more rigorous assessment process once the exam boards released a list of centres accepting private entrants. But the list was published after the entry deadlines for many of the listed centres. “This list should realistically have been out two months ago so that everyone would have time to sort out payments and to feel comfortable in knowing they had an exam centre arranged,” James said.

The uncertainty does not end for students studying independently once they sign up with an exam centre. Sarah* has paid and registered to be graded for an A Level in Law but is yet to receive information on how she will be assessed, when the assessment will take place and what content will be covered.

“Until the end of May I’m going to be hanging on the edge of my seat waiting for when I’m going to get told [the date of my assessments],” Sarah said. “I’m on standby essentially.”

Quicker government response would have reduced uncertainty for students

According to Claire Rose, an education consultant who helped exam centres develop a system for awarding assessed grades to private entrants after exams were cancelled last March, centres have been unable to provide clarity to students because they themselves have been waiting for guidance.

“I feel that has been held up by dillydallying by the Department for Education deciding what they’re going to do with private candidates,” Rose said. “We were told by the end of January we’ll know what we’ll be doing, by the end of February we’ll know what we’ll be doing, by the end of March we’ll know what we’ll be doing and the information just hasn’t been forthcoming, or it’s been contradictory which is even worse.”

“For everyone working with private candidates the uncertainty is really painful.”

Rose believes the system developed for private entrants by many exam centres last summer would have been suitable again this year and could have been refined and rolled out nationwide in “a couple of weeks at the most.” Instead, the Department for Education conducted two public consultations over a two-month period, meaning exam centres had to wait for guidance on how to assess students.

“There was an opportunity in January to make a decision and say ‘right, this is how we’re going to assess private candidates. I don’t think you can find an option that pleases everybody but I do think they could have found that option earlier.”

Sarah received an assessed grade in A Level Business Studies as an independent student last year. She agreed that the process could have acted as a blueprint for how to assess private entrants this summer. “It was a good way for independent students to get those grades,” Sarah said. “It’s the additional cost this year and the stress of everything being up in the air that has really ruined it.”

Students ask for optional exam series

James felt that the government should have had a system for assessing private entrants ready to go before the cancellation of exams. “There was a high likelihood that we were going back into lockdown and as a result that exams were going to get cancelled, so what I can’t understand is why this wasn’t contingency planned for,” James said. “This did already happen last summer, it just needed scaling up for all private candidates.”

Other students pointed to exam cancellations as the government’s biggest error. Those who felt they had been disadvantaged by last year’s switch to assessed grades were particularly keen to emphasise the importance of allowing students to control their own destinies.

In August, Faeeza missed her offers to study politics and social anthropology based on assessed grades determined by her teachers. This year she was looking forward to demonstrating her academic ability. Instead, she now worries that she will be unable to find an exam centre to assess her fairly, and will therefore have to wait another year before going to university. “Exams would have been the most accurate reflection of all the work and revision we’ve been doing for the past year,” Faeeza said. “And now to be assessed by centres we don’t know anything about and using methods we don’t know, it’s not very ideal.”

Uwais said he could not understand the logic behind cancelling exams in June only to require students to sit exam-style assessments in April and May.

“We’ve asked for an optional exam series where students could either sit an exam or receive a grade from their teachers. Ofqual said that would create an unfair two-tier system – but for private candidates it has been a two-tier system anyway.”

*names have been changed.

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Andrew Hillman is a freelance data journalist specialising in health and education. He has written for Birmingham Eastside and the Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter: @ajhillman_ddj.

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