The effects of Covid-19 2020 summer exam cancellations and how to appeal your calculated grade

Please find below a summary of the changes to A-Level exam results announced throughout August 2020 (updated 12th August).  

  • Results will be the highest out of your child’s ‘calculated grades’, their mocks and an optional written exam in the autumn.
  • If your child’s mock exam results are higher than their ‘calculated grade’ they can appeal through their school.
  • Schools can challenge results if they think the school’s past history of exam grades has been applied unfairly.
  • Students can appeal their calculated grade on the technical grounds of process, or if they have clear evidence of discrimination or bias. 

The information in the below article is correct as of 20th April 2020.

After four weeks of lockdown, with a further three weeks just announced, parents, students and teachers up and down the country are trying to get to grips with home schooling. As a result probably even the least enthusiastic student now looks forward to a return to school.

In this article Nathaniel McCullagh, Director of Simply Learning Tuition considers how the Government’s response to Covid-19 will affect students and offers advice on how best to handle the upheaval of cancelled GCSE and A Level exams and what to do if your, ‘calculated grade’ is lower than you think it should be.

What has happened?

The Government sent all children home from school on the 20th March, except those of critical key workers or vulnerable children. Exams were cancelled and in their place, a ‘calculated grade’ will be awarded based on a student’s prior attainment including mock exam results, homework marks and other performance indicators. In this form, A-level results will be published on 13 August and GCSEs on 20 August. Work done between March 20th and the end of the summer term cannot count towards this exam grade. This has led to widespread confusion, disappointment and concern for many parents, teachers and students.


Home schooled students

Some students who are being home schooled or following a distance learning programme will have been entered for their exams at a school, or an exam centre, as a ‘private candidate’. The government have said that these students should also be given a calculated grade but the centre has to be confident that they have seen enough evidence of the student’s achievement. This may require parents to provide evidence of work done at home, or with a tutor. Otherwise, the student may need to take exams in the autumn.


Why can calculated grades be a problem for some students?

If, like me, you were a student who hated exams, a calculated grade might at first sight seem like a welcome alternative. However, teenagers have had their brains hard wired to work towards the all-important final exam. Many will have been dragging their heels in the run up to Easter and half term revision, and may have poor homework and coursework marks. Other students will be annoyed that their revision notes and planning for the exams has now been wasted and they will not be rewarded for their foresight and hard work.


Will calculated grades be accurate?

Several academics claim that teachers are the best people to assess a student because they have long-term visibility over their work. A good teacher will also be aware of pastoral or behavioural issues that may affect performance. Unfortunately, research by Ofqual (the government department for national exams) has shown that there are issues with teacher assessments that could cause students to be awarded the wrong grade. Mistakes are more likely to occur for students who were not, ‘on the academic normal curve’ – and I think it is fair to say this could represent many otherwise perfectly normal students I have tutored. For children who are ambitious, well rounded but driven by a passion outside of a mainstream classroom education, school work often comes second and is therefore not the best measure of their innate academic ability – particularly at times of heavy involvement in their sport, acting, or other fledgling professional career. To make things worse, these students may be less visible to their teachers because they do not, ‘put academics first’. If they begin to miss class or assignments and in time begin to struggle with their work, this can further damage the relationship between student and teacher. Often these issues are picked up around mock exams and a swift call to the parents, and the intervention of extra classes or a tutor can get things back on track. However, without the Easter holidays and Summer term there simply is not enough time to make the necessary improvements.


How important is my GCSE or A Level grade, now that the exams have been cancelled?

It could be argued that because of the unprecedented consequences of the Covid-19 lockdown, schools and universities will take a benevolent approach to admissions. If a student has been made an offer (conditional or unconditional) for university then surely that offer will still stand? However, strict caps are being placed on universities to ensure that they do not take more than their fair share of the domestic student body – it is envisaged that if the international market for students collapses then Russell Group universities will open their doors to less competitive students which will cause big problems for other universities which will not be able to fill their places. All of this is important for students to grasp because it means it is now, more than ever, vital that they get the highest possible grade. At this point it is also well worth remembering that the small differences in marks e.g. between an A and A*, or a 7 and 9 are always significant for university entrance.

The case for A-Levels is clear but it is also really important to get the grade a student deserves at GCSE. Most universities require at least a pass in GCSE maths and English and many Russell Groups require specific grades in certain subjects. University admissions also look at GCSE results when deciding who to make conditional offers to. Additionally, employers such as Deloitte and other big corporates will look at every stage of an academic record (including work experience and extra curricular activity) to score applicants for an internship or job application.


Why is it so important to keep studying right now?

Students need to prepare for next year’s work. If in Year 11 they need to be reading for next year’s A-Levels. If in Year 13, they should be learning about how to adapt to life as an undergraduate and preparing for what they will be reading at University. It is always possible that their university will administer a surprise test to help them select the ‘strongest’ students if they receive an influx of students with inflated grades in September. We also understand that it is not certain that universities will open in September, but in that case courses will be delivered online, so the entrance requirements still need to be met.


What can a student do if they are not happy with their calculated grade?

The government have provided two options; one of which is to appeal the calculated grade, the other is to sit exams as soon as they are offered when school reopens. If a student sits the exam, they can choose the higher of this mark, or their calculated grade and they can sit exams in as many subjects as they like. Ofqual is working extremely hard to ensure that every calculated grade is fair and we think the steps they are taking are likely to be sufficient in 99% of cases. They will use internal standardisation within each school to try to minimise the impact of a ‘rogue teacher’ and then look at historic grades awarded by each school. Next, they will compare similar schools (think inner city comprehensives) and then compare those ‘groups’ with different schools (think leading public schools), again using historical data to analyse the differences and ensure that nothing untoward is happening. If you think this sounds challenging, you are not alone!


Appealing a calculated grade

If a student decides to challenge their grade, they should build their case expertly and must apply to appeal through their school. Start by going through all of the last 12 months’ homework, assessments and coursework and create a table with the mark given on one side and the reasons it wasn’t higher on the other. Look at these reasons and try to draw a common thread. Did the marks improve steadily through the year as the student got to grips with the subject? If so they should be projected forward at the same rate of increase. Was there a particular problem with a specific teacher? Did things improve when a new teacher took their place, or the relationship improved? Again, that improvement should be extrapolated. Has the student got a track record of always doing, say 30% better in exams than regular work? If they can prove this over a number of years, then they may be able to argue the same increase should be given now. Now turn to your family – are there any mitigating circumstances that you can plead, for example, were you going through a divorce? Did your son or daughter have a sports commitment that took them out of school for a long period of time? Did they move in to the UK from a foreign country, or start at a new school? In that case, you should argue that a more accurate representation will come from their previous teachers and that they should be consulted. Any disruption would have to have been pre-Covid 19 however because the assessment will explicitly ignore any drop in performance that occurred because of the pandemic.


Sitting your exam as soon as offered by the government

If their appeal is unsuccessful, or not sufficient to get to where they need to be, students can take exams in as few or as many subjects as you like in the Autumn. If they are in Year 11 of GCSE’s, these could be taken alongside A-Levels; it won’t be easy but it is possible. The student’s record will always show that they took some GCSE’s in later years, but at a casual glance employers will not see this. If challenged, the student will be able to explain that this demonstrates drive and ability. This will likely resonate well with employers. Students can hire a private tutor to help and this is allowed under the Ofqual scheme. (Unlike with the appeal, where any improvements since the schools were closed reached through e.g. hard work and/or tutoring will not be considered.)


What about Retakes?

For some students, the disruption caused by Covid 19 or some other reason might mean that their grades are just too low to get them to where they want to be. In these cases, taking a year off to retake might be very sensible. If a student is moving from Year 11 GCSE to 6th Form, they might be able to do retakes during Year 12 and be admitted based on the new grades being high enough. For final year A-Level students, although it might not be part of the original plan, lots of students take time off to retake. Retakes take up to 9 months and will eat into a Gap Year, or delay the move to university by one year. However, they will allow a student to get a better degree course and likely a better job – again, subject to the caveat that they really had a good reason for underperforming the first time. This might be a golden opportunity to get ahead of the curve with their favourite sport, to travel overseas or learn a foreign language. They can study online and quite easily cover one or two A-levels while working hard on their passion.


Could students get a tutor for the exams?

I think the next six months presents a fantastic opportunity to get some extra help. There will have been significant learning loss for most students, through no fault of their own. For first year A-Level or GCSE students a tutor can help catch up with the curriculum. If in the final year, then hiring a private tutor who will cover subject knowledge but also concentrate on exam technique and past papers will likely improve marks by at least 10%, probably significantly more. This could make all the difference to a student’s future.


The importance of mental health and well-being

Whichever way you look at it Covid-19 has been a huge shock to every student in the country. Children’s and teenage brains are incredibly malleable, however this means they are also susceptible to a huge amount of learning loss. For this reason, it is important to keep on learning as much as possible through the disruption. If your son or daughter comes out a ‘calculated grade winner’, either directly, on appeal or after carefully preparing for an autumn exam, that is great, but if they are unlucky and get worse marks than they deserve, it is not the end of the journey. They should take this time to reflect on what they could do differently next time, and focus on building resilience. Education is a marathon, not a sprint and if they are fortunate, they never really stop learning in life. If they have always dreamed of getting a particular job, or studying a certain degree, then they likely will, but it might not happen straight away. The very most important thing is to not suffer anxiety as a result of these events. The whole family should limit media consumption, tuning out sensationalist daily news reports and focusing instead on retrospective, in-depth reporting. For all things to do with education in the UK use the Ofqual website – it is updated regularly and is the only truly reliable resource. At this difficult time, schools are too under resourced to be able to offer much help with pastoral issues so I would recommend MIND for parents of teenage children. If things are more serious, Claire Milford Haven’s foundation, James Place offers help and support. If you have any specific questions about your son or daughter’s education please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us, we would be delighted to recommend a tutor, or give advice on the next steps.

This information is correct as of 20th April.

If you have any comments or questions about this Advice Page, we would be delighted to answer them.

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