Chiswick School told Ofqual their system was flawed in May

Image above: Head teacher of Chiswick School, Laura Ellener

The head teacher of Chiswick School, Laura Ellener, told Ofqual back in May the statistical model they were planning to use for standardising A Level grades would not work.

When summer exams were cancelled because of the coronavirus, schools and colleges were asked to provide a centre assessment grade for each student and a rank order of students within each grade per subject. This data was put into an algorithm with data on the school’s previous performance, resulting in high-achieving ‘outliers’ – those who did much better than a student from their school had done before – often being downgraded, locking unfairness into the system.

Various bodies warned Ofqual about this, including Chiswick School:

“In May, Governors at the school made representation to Ofqual” says Laura, “and in early August also to MP Robert Halfon, who is Chair of the Education Select Committee in Parliament, our local MP Ruth Cadbury and to the Minister for Education, Gavin Williamson.

“We were concerned that the statistical model that had been published relating to how examination grades would be determined simply did not work for Chiswick School. We are a turnaround school and were expecting a huge improvement in the results of some subject areas. It would be unethical for the results of students to be based on those historic results and a statistical model that doesn’t account for rapid school improvement. It is a shame that despite having months to prepare and the flaws of the system being pointed out the strategy was pushed through”. 

While overall the school’s grades went up, entirely as they foretold, Chiswick was among the schools which had very high achieving students down-graded entirely because of the school’s past performance. On Laura’s watch, the school has gone from ‘Requires Improvement’ status to ‘Good’ in its Ofsted ranking with ‘Outstanding’ for students’ personal development.

In a blog post published on Friday (14 August) she came out fighting for her students and gave this example of the way in which they were being treated unfairly: “One student was moved from a Grade D to a U – because the school had a U last year so we had to have one this year”.

Image above: Maimuna Hassan

A letter to Boris

Another student, Maimuna Hassan, was predicted grades of A* in Maths, A* in Computer Science, and an A in Physics. Her grades were down-graded to an A in Maths and a B in Physics. She had been offered places at Cambridge and Imperial College to read Engineering, and lost both of those offers when the grades were announced last Thursday.

Maimuna is the daughter of Somali immigrants, for whom English was her third language when she arrived in this country. She wrote a heart-rending letter to Boris Johnson explaining just what it meant to her to have lost those opportunities. You can read her letter here.

She lost both those offers because Ofqual “took the wrong road” as their Chairman Roger Taylor admitted on Monday (16 August), having refused to heed previous warnings from several quarters.

One factor which might have helped them decide to abandon the standardisation algorithm was the number of court cases beginning to line up, including a Judicial Review.

Joshua Ellis, who works for Alpha Academic Appeals, giving advice on how to appeal against exam grades, told The Chiswick Calendar that Chiswick School might well have had grounds to appeal results on the basis that this year’s cohorts is not representative of previous years.

Image above: Joshua Ellis, adviser with Alpha Academic Appeals.

Not too late to appeal to universities

According to Joshua, if students were told they had lost their university place on the basis of last week’s results, they should get back in contact with the university.

Before the U turn, universities had been asked to hold places open until the 7 September for students who were appealing against their grade decision. There was no guarantee that they would and in many cases their place will have already been given away, but he says, it is important that students are in contact with their university and not just assume that all is lost.

Some Oxford colleges, led by Worcester, had already said that they would take all the students to whom they had made offer, irrespective of their final grade. Oxbridge colleges don’t go through clearing, so in theory those places should still be available, particularly as former students had been petitioning their colleges to follow the example set by Worcester.

“Many students have written letters, made phone calls and taken to social media to advocate on behalf of A-Level students who have missed their grades” he said.

“Lack of compassion”

Other universities, where over-offering (i.e. offering more students places than they have places avaliable) is common, have been less accomodating. During the past few days, lots of students he has talked to who were considering an appeal “have found a real lack of flexibility and compassion from their universities”. As a result they may well find their place has been filled.

The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said he hoped the U turn, a week after Scotland had concluded the system wasn’t fair, and a full four days after the results were published in England, would give “the certainty and reassurance that students deserve”. Not really. Schools, universities and businesses now have to pick up the pieces, with many university places and apprenticeships already offered to other people.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Chiswick student writes to PM after missing out on place at Cambridge

See also: Interview with Laura Ellener, headteacher of Chiswick School