This piece was originally published on the Career Guidance for Social Justice website on 15th August 2020.
This week school students in England have been opening their A level results. For international readers of this blog, the A levels are standardised national exams that students take around the age of 18. They determine admissions to higher and further education as well has having relevance to employers. Unlike lots of other education systems, English teachers normally have no say in the summative assessment of pupils.
The problem is that this year no A level exams took place. Covid-19 meant that schools closed in March or April and the exams were cancelled shortly after. In their place an untested mix of teacher assessment and national moderation was created. The idea was that teachers should assign students a grade and a rank within the class and then these results would be moderated nationally to assign everyone the grade that they would have got.
So what actually happened?
The whole plan for assigning grades in the A levels is based on a confusion between the idea of statistical accuracy and individual accuracy. It was possible that the proposed system could have returned roughly the right grade profile across the whole student population and done it in a fair way. But, it was never possible that any assurance could be given that individual students had received the grades that they would have got if the exams had gone ahead.
By looking at the teacher data, performance by schools and in subjects in previous years it was possible that we could have ended up with something that returned similar grades to similar students in similar schools to last year. Sadly, it looks like the statistical model hasn’t quite pulled this off, with vast numbers of students being downgraded and concerns about whether disadvantaged students are being unfairly penalised. Inevitably this has led to calls for the Secretary of State to resign and plenty of people publishing ‘I told you so’ pieces explaining that it could have worked better with more transparency, less marketisation or better pedagogy and assessment practice.
The truth is the whole thing was heading for disaster from the point when the exams were scrapped. If you build a high stakes exam culture which literally sorts out the winners from the losers and if you mistrust teachers and undermine their professionalism, you have a crisis waiting to happen and no tools to address it. Inevitably in a situation where exams can’t take place, many individuals are going to feel that they could have done better if they had been able to take the exam. They can blame their teachers, they can blame the statistical moderation model, and they are basically right to do so. No one knows whether they would have done better if they’d sat the exam, and for some, particularly those on the borderline between grades, a decision by a teacher or an adjustment from an algorithm might have made a difference which could make a difference to the rest of their lives.
Enter the careers professional
Results day is traditionally one of the busiest in the year for careers professionals. Helping people to deal with plans that have collapsed, or take advantage of opportunities that have unexpectedly opened up is what the profession is there to do. Students might have been rejected from a favoured university, but with a bit of sympathy and some strategic planning maybe they can be helped to switch to a less competitive subject or institution.
In a normal year it is all about gaming the system as best you can. The system might not be idea, you probably wouldn’t design it this way, but we all know how it works and so let’s make the best of it.
This year is different. Gaming is still going to be important, but it is not going to be enough.
Advocacy, feedback and organising
In the current situation careers professionals need to be undertaking some additional roles beyond advising and strategising for the young people that they are working with. These are:
- advocating for young people. Families with more social and cultural capital will be frantically arguing with universities and employers for an exception. Those from less advantaged backgrounds need someone in their corner to help them to push the system to give them an opportunity. Careers professionals are well placed to play that role.
- feeding back to the system. The government is hoping that people will ultimately accept what they are given and the fuss will die down. But careers professionals have a responsibility to feedback what they are learning to the schools, universities and government. The more feedback about talent squandered, unfair judgements and lives ruined the better. Careers professionals are hearing all of these stories and shouldn’t keep the pain to themselves. Find ways to feedback whether through legitimate channels (official complaints) or unofficial ones (letters to MPs, the media etc.).
- organising people to challenge what has happened. The government has belatedly launched an appeals process. It is very likely that more advantaged pupils make better use of this process than less-advantaged ones. Careers professionals have a role to play in ensuring that all students take up the opportunities that are available to them. But, addressing this through individuals appeals is not enough, it is also important to support students and parents to engage with the protests and legal challenges that will inevitably follow this kind of mess.
The A level results crisis has highlighted many of the inequalities of the current high stakes examination system. There are many wider reforms that are needed to make things fairer, but for now there is a cohort of young people who are struggling with their futures. Now is a time that a purposeful and assertive intervention by careers professionals can really make a difference.