By Sam Portillo
Just hours before students in Wales collected their A Level results, Education Secretary Kirsty Williams announced changes to the grading system which meant that school leavers will not receive grades lower than they achieved at AS Level in each subject.
Due to the cancellation of exams in line with social distancing measures and a ban on mass gatherings, this year, GCSEs, A Levels and other similar qualifications have been awarded based on other factors, including teacher assessments, mock exams, and subject coursework.
These factors together formed a Centre Assessment Grade. In almost half of cases, CAGs were adjusted – usually downgraded – in an attempt to mimic the school’s typical results day performance.
Had the CAGs not been adjusted, 40% of A Level students in Wales would have received a grade A or A*, compared to just 27% last year, suggesting that this year’s results would have been incomparable to others, and looked upon unfavourably by employers and universities.
Speaking in a recorded video uploaded to social media, Kirsty Williams persisted that the original grading system was “fair” and “robust”.
However, late changes made by the Scottish and Westminster governments meant that Welsh students could have been put at a competitive disadvantage when applying for jobs and higher education opportunities.
The Scottish Government, using a similar CAG system, faced major backlash after students from disadvantaged backgrounds and worse-performing schools found their results had been disproportionately “downgraded”.
After thousands took to the street in protest and voiced their grievances on social media, Scottish students will now receive revised grades based entirely on their teachers’ suggestions.
Anticipating a similar fallout, the UK government also revised the grading system in England, albeit the day before results were released, with students being able to take their best result from a “triple lock” of calculated grades, mock exam results, or resits taken once schools reopen in autumn.
After frantic discussions with Qualifications Wales and WJEC, the national examination board, the Education Secretary assured school leavers that if they have been awarded grades lower than they achieved at AS Level, they will automatically receive new results taking the AS grade as a baseline.
The timing of the decision, however, left no time for results papers to be replaced and distributed for results day. Many students opened their results, but saw grades which had yet to be adapted.
The introduction of a minimum baseline will have protected many students from harsh downgrades, especially those who achieved high grades at AS Level but study at poorer schools.
That said, data from exam boards reveals that in Wales, 42% of CAGs were downgraded, a higher proportion than in any other country in the UK.
These adjustments likely reflect the the fact that schools and colleges in Wales typically perform worse on results day than those across the border, although many have doubts about the ethics of systematically lowering grades when students themselves have not sat the exams.
The algorithm for this year’s A Level results, although well-intentioned, has left many students across Wales and the UK disappointed.
There’s no clear indication yet as to whether the UK and its devolved nations will continue to use this algorithm to award A Level and GCSE results if students are unable to sit exams next Summer.