The A Level and GCSE position – UK, 2020 – one parent’s perception

2020 has seen a series of events that have astonished me – not least

  • Brexit
  • Climate change
  • COVID-19
  • The A Level algorithm (18y/o exams)

I’m writing this 72 hours before the GCSE results (16y/o exams) are published in the UK.

Brexit has yet to fully impact the UK. The legal and managerial costs are being sucked up as ‘the will of the people’, but the trade and logistical costs won’t fully impact until 2021, after the end of the transition period (31/12/20). I predict the UK will be significantly affected, both by the direct consequences of Brexit, and the interplay between Brexit and COVID consequences. We use the expression 2+2=5 to mock an illogical statement but there are times when two factors can exacerbate one another. Brexit and COVID could make one another worse.

Climate change was acknowledged as a vital issue that needs to be addressed as an emergency. For all the obvious reasons, this is both good (the acknowledgement) and bad (the need).

COVID-19. We have, to date and 5 months from the start of lockdown, the worst death rate in Europe (Reuters). Our initial government reaction was to let herd immunity play out. This was followed by “go home for a week and dial 111” without test and trace. By the time the seriousness was realised, the virus was no longer containable, at which point we shipped the elderly into care homes where the virus gained a further foothold in one of our most vulnerable populations. Everything since has been damage limitation, and soon we will again approach the flu season with its added burden on our NHS.

The A Level/GCSE algorithm. After our young students took mocks in the first quarter of 2020, lockdown hit and the final GCSE and A Level exams were cancelled. Teachers spent painful hours and days predicting grades, listing students in rank order, and submitting results recommendations based on the students’ performance. In August, it was announced that since the teacher assessments could potentially be subjective, so the bulk of the submitted data would be discarded in favour of a standardisation algorithm that would generate results based on the (teacher-generated) rank order of students and the school/college’s past performance. Standardisation can have its merits, but without due detail and correction, there can be drawbacks – in this case,

  • a college subjected to the algorithm that had not previously received a top grade in a subject in the past would not be able to do so now, and
  • the algorithm would not be applied to classes containing less than 15 students. Mathematically, statistical workings do need a certain number to work effectively, but socially, this means that private schools (with typically fewer students/class) gain a significant advantage; their grades would revert to the (more positive) teacher assessments.

The algorithm therefore limits the potential for colleges to improve, and sets an unfair disadvantage for larger classes. To generate a truly accurate algorithm that would balance all the complexities and variables in the timeframe given would be a work of genius – and isn’t likely to happen. To remedy the flawed algorithm, governments need to take a clear leadership position.

Scotland (A Level) and Northern Ireland (GCSE) have adopted the position of several EU member states, and opted to use teacher assessments. This gives the students the opportunity to move on, gain college positions, and work for their next qualification without looking back (from which point, their aptitude can be tested by conventional means). It also allows the governments to focus fully on the impact of COVID-19 in terms of both healthcare and economy, and to continue to address climate issues and prepare for the impact of Brexit at the end of the year.

England and Wales are prevaricating, instigating and then withdrawing (for review) complex appeal systems that may or may not command a fee, that will leave teaching staff with a workload burden, students unable to move onto the next step of their career (with some doors potentially closed, since colleges can only defer so many places), and the government will be called to comment and advise until this process is complete, disallowing a clear focus on COVID, climate and Brexit just when these are most critical.

That is my understanding of the current position – do correct me if I am wrong. The position is changing by the hour.

As parents, we hope for the best for our children – and are prepared to stand up and fight for them for as long as it takes. As a nation, our young people have worked through and experienced the most astonishing year, and are still hoping for a healthy, educated, employed future. The 18 y/os will be able to vote from this point onwards; the 16 y/os – many almost 17 now – are not far behind.

These are the people who will shape our old age.

In a stroke of irony, 2020 may be the biggest test our country has faced in a half-century. Certainly, this is a time when our actions will shape everything that is to come. Will we stand up, speak, write, and look to the 3.5% rule, or not?

We can choose to stand up and be counted, or we can bury our heads in the sand – either way, this is our test.


17/8/20 update – yey whoooo! They’ve decided to go with teacher assessments across the UK. It’s not ideal, no one thought things could be now – but it’s kind of logical and fairish and at least the most deprived kids stand a chance now. (If the ones at the bottom of the academic ladder get a boost from this, then good. Because life never was fair, and it’s their turn to be on the good end.)


Thank you for reading 😊