Calum Isaacs

There’s nothing unfair about the way A-level results will be decided

There's nothing unfair about the way A-level results will be decided
Getty images
Text settings

This time tomorrow, I will be one of the hundreds of thousands of A-Level students across the country receiving their results. The hastily set-up grade allocation system – which will use an algorithm based on a pupil's predicted and past grades, as well as a school's recent exam history to give results – has generated a predictable amount of anger. But this frustration is misplaced. Even as a student from a comprehensive school, the type of school thought to be most disadvantaged by this method of allocating results, the chosen approach is the best we can hope for in these circumstances.

After all, in the absence of exams what are the alternatives? One popular suggestion is that instead of teacher-given grades being standardised in line with previous years, whatever grades teachers have said their students will get, however high, should be awarded as they are. The issue, of course, is that many teachers have been fairly lenient with the grading, which is why there have been warnings that Ofqual, the body in charge of issuing grades, is likely to lower these initial marks across the board. It seems to me that this lowering is necessary, as sitting back and letting grades be hugely inflated will have consequences.

Some schools will have been a bit more daring and been overly generous in their grading, knowing those grades would probably be lowered by Ofqual. Other schools would have taken the advice they were given, did as they were told, and awarded the grades honestly. I would not like to be the one to have my grades diluted by the profligacy of other schools.

Perhaps you might argue that this concern with ‘dilution’ is the result of an age-old obsession with the importance of A-Levels when it is unlikely a future employer will take them into great consideration, let alone take great notice of what year they were issued. This may be true. But plenty of those taking A-levels will not go to university, and the job opportunities for them will surely be affected by the relative value of their results, particularly in what is certain to be a highly-competitive jobs market.

As for those hoping to head off to university in September, it's important to remember that places are not unlimited. If my school is more of a stickler for the rules than other schools, I may miss my offer, and the places I can get through the clearing process (the system through which universities fill extra spots after results day) are likely to be more limited. After all, those from generous schools will already have met their offers with ease. 

Another point that has been made is that, on balance, the risks of under-marking outweigh those of over-marking. People who are over-marked, the argument goes, will just be in a position they’re not perfectly suited for, whereas those under-marked will have the serious disadvantage of missing out on what they were definitely ready for. However, as I've said, job opportunities and university places are not unlimited. Any system will have winners and losers. If many people are over-marked, those who are not have to deal with the consequences.

This is why, for all its controversy, I believe we have to respect the standardisation system in place, and the 'triple lock' announced today – that will ensure students don't get worse grades than those awarded in their mocks – aren't necessary. Teachers in each subject have been asked to rank their students by ability and assign each a grade. I’m sure, in my school and schools across the country, subject departments have argued it out between each other with all of the data they have – mock exam results, homework, class participation, responses to feedback – to try and make rankings as accurate as possible. I am glad teachers are at the root of this process because, after all, they are the ones who know pupils the best. Nevertheless, it is necessary that Ofqual have, at the same time, used schools’ previous A-level results to predict what each school as a whole would normally get, adjusting for whether a year group at each school had been particularly different to normal at GCSE. Teachers' rankings will then be overlaid on these expected grades.

Through this process, as with any exam substitute, some will lose out. This year's marking system will take into account schools where a year group is particularly exceptional. But individual students who stand out from their peers in terms of their academic ability may find themselves under-marked for being at schools unused to such individuals. It's also inevitable that a small minority of teachers will have grudges against certain students reflected, but this is likely to be the exception. Especially hard to stomach is that ethnic minority students might fare worse than other students as a result of prejudice. 

Of course, for all who are marked down and miss out on jobs or university places as a result, this system will feel deeply unfair. But any system that does not give you that honest, final shot that exams do will always be unfair. We should strive hard to ensure next year’s students get the chance we were denied. But for my year, this way of marking A-levels is the best we can hope for.

Calum Isaacs is an A-Level student