Students 'not confident' in 11th hour change to England's school exam results system

High school students Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Students have reacted to the government's last minute change to England's GCSE and A-level exam system, with some expressing a lack of confidence in the move.

The government has come under fire with the 11th hour changes to the way results will be assessed branded "panicked and chaotic".

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced late on Tuesday that students will be able to use grades from mock exams to progress to university and college courses and employment.

If students wish to appeal, results in mock tests – which were held before schools were forced to close amid the Covid-19 crisis – will carry the same weight as the calculated results.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon inspects preparations during a visit to West Calder High School in West Lothian Credit: Fraser Bremner/Daily Mail/PA

The move – less than 48 hours before students receive their calculated A-level results – comes in the wake of a dramatic U-turn by the Scottish government following results controversy.

Ministers have denied that England's exam system has been thrown into “confusion” by the last minute changes.

But Charlie Heron, from Shenfield High School, Essex, said he is "not confident" the changes to will help him.

"A lot of us in our mocks didn’t put in the maximum effort because we had Ucas and university applications to do… I had to submit a portfolio which meant my time was limited," the 18-year-old said.

ITV News Correspondent Chloe Keedy on the changes to England's exam results system

“In the end, my mock grades weren’t the best, and my teachers were accepting of this. When it comes to resitting the exams, I think that it isn’t entirely fair," the A-level student said.

Mr Heron, from Brentwood, who studied economics, maths and history, said he is “lucky” as he has a part-time job and was not decided yet on going to university.

A-level student Zac Cash had similar reservations. He told ITV News "mock results are so different to A-levels".

"They're an exam done in January," he said.

"Think how much revision you could possibly due in between January and May/June. It's incredible.

"I don't think it's an accurate reflection of what you could achieve"

Suzanne Whitton, whose 18-year-old daughter Holly is awaiting A-level results, said the last-minute changes appeared “knee-jerk”.

A member of staff giving advice to a pupil about clearing. Credit: PA

“This feels very much like a knee-jerk panic reaction to me, by a government who has watched Scotland’s fiasco unfurl,” the parent from Wokingham in Berkshire, said.

“I don’t know why they have left it so late to make this decision when it would have put so many students’ minds at rest if it had been declared before.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has defended the system and said it will deliver “credible, strong results” for the overwhelming majority of young people,

Speaking ahead of pupils receiving their A-level results on Thursday, Mr Williamson described the exams system as “fair” and “robust”.

Mr Williamson said: "We have every confidence that the system that we put in place is a robust system, the system is fair for pupils.

"But we're wanting to make sure there's a triple lock there so that youngsters have the option of taking the moderated grade," he added.

"They have the option of going to an October series of exams if their dissatisfied, but equally the appeal process that they can use and actually provide their mock exams as evidence to the grade that they feel they should be having."

Chancellor Rishi Sunak, asked if he will apologise for the government making the change on the eve of results, told ITV News: "This was not something anyone expected or had to do but, common with many other countries, we've had to cancel exams to suppress the spread of the virus."

When asked why he would not follow in steps of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who apologised for the exam results fiasco in Scotland, the chancellor said: "As I said, we've put in place a set of options which I think are good for young people.

"It will give them the opportunity to take another exam in the Autumn and they can look at their predicted grades and the system that we've put in place and decide what's best for them."

Nick Gibb, schools minister for England, acknowledged that the government was “concerned” about what happened in Scotland - but he insisted the system in England remains “robust”.

He said only a “small number” of students would be affected by the change and insisted that ministers have nothing to apologise for by acting so late in the day.

The MP told ITV News the system is "robust and fair" adding: "We also wanted to make sure that, if that doesn't work for particular students for whatever reason, that there is an appeals process in place".

“There is no confusion. We have been very clear from the very beginning," he told BBC Breakfast.

"We had to have a system in place to award qualifications to young people given that we had cancelled the exams."

“We apologise to nobody for finding solutions, even at the 11th hour, to stop any student being disadvantaged by this system."

All summer exams were cancelled on March 18 as school across Wales closed their doors because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Credit: PA Images

Bu the move was branded “panicked and chaotic” by a union leader representing school heads.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, warned the changes would lead to “massive inconsistency” in the way grades were awarded.

Mr Barton argued mock exams are not standardised so some students may not have taken them before schools closed in March.

Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson. Credit: Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street/Crown Copyright

He said: "The idea of introducing at the 11th hour a system in which mock exam results trump calculated grades beggars belief.

"Schools and colleges have spent months diligently following detailed guidance to produce centre-assessed grades, only to find they might as well not have bothered.

"If the government wanted to change the system it should have spent at least a few days discussing the options rather than rushing out a panicked and chaotic response."

Making the changes, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson also announced an additional £30 million in funding to help schools and colleges carry out the autumn exam series for students wishing to sit GCSE and A-level exams.

Credit: PA

But the appeals process – where individual students in England are dependent on schools and colleges to appeal against results on their behalf – is expected to remain the same.

Mr Williamson said: “Every young person waiting for their results wants to know they have been treated fairly.

“By ensuring students have the safety net of their mock results, as well as the chance of sitting autumn exams, we are creating a triple lock process to ensure they can have the confidence to take the next step forward in work or education.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer: ‘I would urge the Prime Minister to change course, or he risks robbing a generation of their future’. Credit: Jacob King/PA

Meanwhile Labour has urged the government to carry out urgent changes - including helping students to correct their grades with credible appeals and resits as well as clarifying which students are likely to be worst affected by the model being used.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: "This is complete fiasco. It was obvious that this was going to be difficult but it’s been weeks or months in the coming.

“To have an 11th-hour decision that’s caused widespread chaos amongst teachers I have been speaking to, families and young people – it smacks of incompetence.”

Sir Keir Starmer added: “The idea of using mock results is deeply flawed. Talking to teachers today, it’s obvious that they expect, across the piece, that young people will do better in the real exam than they’d done in the mock."

“It’s not going to work, it’s not going to wash".

Shadow education secretary Kate Green told ITV News the solution is "wholly inadequate," describing the move as "panicked".

She added: "It must be so unsettling for students that at the 11th hour the system changes again and I really feel for them. It must be very damaging to their confidence.

"I don't think the mocks are a very good way to sort out the chaos that we're in.

"Not all students would have even taken mocks, there's no consistency of when they're taken or when they're graded so it's not a reliable way to try to make a fairer assessment of a student's performance."

Credit: PA

England’s exams regulator has said it is “working urgently” to set out what evidence will be needed to ensure mock exam results can be part of an appeal.

A statement from Ofqual said: “We understand why the government has wanted to provide some additional assurance for students, by confirming that evidence from valid mock exams can be considered as part of an appeal.

“We are working urgently to operationalise this as fairly as possible and to determine what standards of evidence will be required for the appeal. We will provide more detail early next week.

“We will continue to do everything possible to ensure students achieve grades that are as fair as possible in the circumstances this summer.”

How has the exam results system changed?

After this year's exams were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, teachers were told to submit the grades they thought each student would have received.

Exam boards have moderated these grades to ensure this year’s results – for students in England, Northern Ireland and Wales – are not significantly higher than previous years.

But now students in England can keep their grades in mock exams if they are higher than the calculated grade - with regulator Ofqual asked to determine how and when valid mock results can be used.

Students will have to go through the appeals process to use their mock exam result, with their school required to submit evidence to the exam board.

And they will still be able to sit exams in the autumn if they are unhappy with the grades they secured in mock exams, or if they are dissatisfied with results awarded by exam boards on Thursday.

All three grades will hold the same value with universities, colleges and employers, the Department for Education (DfE) said.