Urgent Improvement Needed: How the Exam Process Will Wreck the Chances of Thousands by Daniel Dipper, Year 13.

“I and thousands of students in a similar position to me across the country can only hope that Ofqual will do what every student does after writing an essay or completing classwork – they consider what they have managed to achieve but more importantly review how they can improve, and how to make sure they’ve covered every perspective, and they take it on board by delivering on it immediately”

Potential Plus UK strongly believes that the strengths of every individual should be supported and their potential nurtured. The situation that has arisen due to the Covid-19 crisis has indeed tested all of our abilities to provide the help needed by others in our communities, and especially those living and working in difficult circumstances. Daniel’s story below highlights not only his own personal struggle to move on successfully to the next step on the ladder, but reflects the challenge being faced by many young people in our country at this time, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, independent candidates, and those whose educational needs or settings (such as the requirements of an EHCP or Alternative Provision) put them at a disadvantage when ‘assessed’ by the standardisation model.

Potential Plus UK calls on all stakeholders (including candidates themselves, parents and teachers) to voice your concerns to the Education Select Committee which is currently asking for evidence on The Impact of COVID-19 on Education and Children’s Services: https://committees.parliament.uk/work/202/the-impact-of-covid19-on-education-and-childrens-services/  The call for evidence closes on Tuesday 21 July 2020


A Personal Perspective – Daniel Dipper

the standardisation model is the barrier to disadvantaged high-achieving individuals, so it truly requires reflection and reform

COVID-19 has caused widespread disruption across every sector, and with it has brought numerous new challenges. One which is particularly pertinent to myself is the emergency examination grading system which has been put into place for this summer. A system based around teachers’ professional opinions of what grades we should get is, to me, in itself, not a problem (although I understand concerns raised by others, for example, evidence suggesting that BAME students are more likely to have their grades under predicted by teachers), and understandably this system has had to be implemented with speed to deliver results for A Level students on August 13th, and for GCSE students on August 20th, so it cannot be perfect. However, my fear is that bright pupils in disadvantaged areas are likely to be hardest hit by this system due to the standardisation model, and this is something that I feel seriously needs addressing.

Once again the concept of a standardisation model is not something I refute – in fact it is necessary that there are some controls, as there are likely to be differences in the harshness of grading across schools and we can’t just have everybody walking out with A*s as it undermines confidence in the exam system. Unfortunately, though, the only indicator that seems to be included within this model (though it is important to acknowledge we don’t know exactly what the model looks like as there is not absolute transparency on this point) is using the previous grades of the centre that entered you for the examination. This poses a serious problem to candidates like myself who are at disadvantaged schools and were on track to achieve grades rarely, if at all, seen at my institution. I do not doubt that there is enough evidence to support me fulfilling my offer conditions to study History and Politics at Oxford University, and this would make me one of three people in my year to go to Oxford, the first time my school has had any students get an offer from Oxford, and also I am the first in my immediate family to go to university. For example, I was on track to achieve an A* in my History A Level, and this conclusion is well-supported, in my opinion, due to the fact that my coursework achieved full marks, due to my mocks where I was comfortably into the A* boundary and in my classwork where I was consistently achieving this grade, and had been for most of my studies. Yet my school barely ever achieves A*s or large numbers of As in any subject, so I fear the standardisation model may unfairly penalise me on this basis. It has clearly been stated by Ofqual that the past achievements of your school are highly prioritised, and in fact in some cases may actually hold more weight than your teacher’s submission. I know that the government has made it clear that they expect universities should be flexible, and indeed I think they will, but I feel they shouldn’t have to be at all – actually making sure the examinations process is sound for all students in the first place should be the priority. If we don’t, we are extremely likely to demoralise thousands of High Learning Potential children in disadvantaged areas across the UK, not just at A Level but also at GCSE level as well, through no fault of their own. Why should we grade the achievements of the individual on what the school achieves instead of actually on what they achieved, what hard work they put in, what talent they have, and what ability they have shown over the last two years of study? To me, this is entirely contradictory to the vision of social mobility that we should hold, which is that, regardless of where you are born, regardless of how wealthy your family is, regardless of your ethnicity or any other factor, that we live in a meritocratic society where we judge children (and everybody else) by their own achievements. If this system operates in the way that has been suggested, what we are actually doing is punishing high-ability students simply for where they live and where they were educated. How is that justifiable?

We are already working through the mechanisms of the examinations grading system but we can still take action now, before it’s too late. The teachers’ grades have all been submitted, but the standardisation model hasn’t whirred into action yet. There are a number of ways to resolve this to make sure the grades that are received on results day are the ones that students deserve. The first way to tackle some of these problems is to re-review the standardisation model and to tweak it so that it is truly fair for all students. To me this standardisation model should actually try to use much more data about the individual –  this can help us to iron out these inconsistencies and could make the difference for high-achieving disadvantaged students like myself. For example my GCSE grades of 7 x 9, 2 x 8, 2 x A* and 1 x 7 would strongly support the submission of an A* in History for example (a subject where I got a grade 9) and would also support the admission in my other subjects of high grades. That way when we standardised grades, it would truly take into account the individual – instead of seeing grades as representative of the school, we should truly support the principles of social mobility and see every submission of a grade as a real person who has their own talents and abilities, regardless of what their school previously achieved. I understand some will say that some students perform much better in the exams than throughout their studies, and there is some evidence suggesting that boys are more likely to make significant improvements in the last few months before the exams when compared to girls who have a slightly steadier trajectory. By teachers submitting grades based on their professional judgements this should already have been accounted for. Let’s be clear about this though – the standardisation model is the barrier to disadvantaged high-achieving individuals, so it truly requires reflection and reform. Whilst high-achieving individuals from these backgrounds may not be a significant proportion of the population, they are in terms of what they can offer to our nation and are particularly important to the communities they come from as trailblazers who will hopefully lead more in a similar direction. Let’s show commitment to social mobility and kick the whole process up a gear by tackling this head on.

The second of these changes I recommend is a significant review of the appeals process – the current system to me strongly lacks transparency, and suggests an almost above reproach attitude to the workings of the system. Instead of the current system, I propose an appeal on the grades outputted from the standardisation model; the appeal would be evidence based (unlike the majority of the system currently in place) so that it was clear that students genuinely deserved this grade change, so, for example, the submission of a few classwork essays, coursework (if completed), and mocks to provide a package of evidence in humanities subjects. This is a clear way to tackle some of the problems posed by this system, and only then, if a student genuinely believes they deserve better, will they sit the Autumn exam series. It would be more manageable, and more importantly it would be fairer, ensuring that the system worked correctly the first time. The offer of an Autumn exam series, whilst sounding idyllic in theory, is severely flawed in practice. Not only do exam boards not actually have to offer a particular subject, or for that matter any subjects at all, but actually this will do nothing to resolve the problems already raised here; the very same students who are likely to be penalised in their results due to going to a disadvantaged state school are then going to be penalised again because they can’t access this examination series. This is because these disadvantaged state schools are most likely to be the ones offering very little or no support at all since schools hurriedly closed towards the end of March – my school, for example, set a few small pieces of work on an online platform, until after Easter we weren’t allowed to communicate with our teachers in any way at all, and since then the support provided is incredibly minimal. In one of my subjects we still had an estimated eighth of the content left to cover on the syllabus, so these exams aren’t accessible to the very people who I feel may require them, as we’ve had no teaching time. These exams should also be the absolute last resort – to me a sign of success with this examination series is if not many people apply to take the exams, but that should be because people are content with their grades overall, not because they can’t access the exams or are so demoralised they see no point in proceeding.

It’s also important to consider access to the exams from more than just through the academic lens; many of these disadvantaged schools are cash-strapped and have been struggling to make ends meet for years, so adding in a bunch of students who want to re-sit could break the bank. This therefore means, I feel, that there is a real-risk that there are going to be students who don’t sit these exams because they, or their school, simply can’t afford to sit them – the likelihood of schools passing these costs on (which could be several hundred up to nearly one thousand pounds) is real. If Ofqual is insistent on this autumn exam series, more logistical thought is needed – for example some teaching unions have recently suggested a boycott of these exams due to lack of space to accommodate them, as well as all year groups who the government have pledged to return to schools by September, so launching another appeals process (described above) would make these plans much more workable. Maybe we even need to launch a funding pot to allow students from disadvantaged schools to be able to afford to re-sit these exams if the appeals process cannot be reworked, because currently the system is not going to work how it should for some of the most disadvantaged members of our society, the very same people we want to support to move beyond their background to achieve success, to show our society is truly meritocratic and not the class-ridden society of the 1920s.

To me, these examination arrangements are significant, both on a personal level in terms of where I end up next and on a symbolic level in terms of social mobility, and it’s incredibly important that we get it right the first time around. For years, social mobility has been stagnant, so it is so important that this examination arrangements system makes this country’s commitment to social mobility loud and clear. Every student should be judged on their merits, and theirs alone, not what students a few years ago achieved or what a computer model thinks they deserve. The relationship between schools and what grades students achieve should be uncoupled – it is very likely that people who are in positions similar to mine got there through their own hard work and determination. Schools do recognise this, but it is very unlikely that the standardisation model will, from the information we have. A serious reconsideration regarding appeals must take place as well, and let’s see the Autumn exam series as a last-resort option for students, particularly considering that it will cause serious problems to applications to top universities next year by making that application round incredibly competitive (due to the resits preventing students going to university this year). If Ofqual are insistent that the Autumn exam series is to run then there is much work to be done on this as well, to make sure students can actually access it; I fear the boat on this has already sailed, with so much school time already having been missed by thousands of disadvantaged students across the country. I and thousands of students in a similar position to me across the country can only hope that Ofqual will do what every student does after writing an essay or completing classwork – they consider what they have managed to achieve but more importantly review how they can improve, and how to make sure they’ve covered every perspective, and they take it on board by delivering on it immediately. This problem cannot wait, and let’s ensure there isn’t a lost generation of high-ability students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Let’s show we mean it when we say it’s not about where you come from but what you achieve.


About the author: Daniel Dipper has recently been appointed a Trustee for the charity Potential Plus UK and is a Year 13 student who is an offer holder for Oxford University to read History and Politics. Daniel was previously a Young Reporter with Potential Plus UK and has been a member for ten years. He now volunteers to support other students applying to university and is passionate about social mobility. 

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