The Forgotten A-Level Students Left with No Grades at All

The UK government's U-turn has allowed the majority of students to use teacher-predicted grades as their final results. For students who sat their exams externally, no such predicted grades even exist.
a-levels
Left: Ali Jamil, Right: Manpreet Kaur

Despite the government’s screeching U-turn this week over the A-Level results fiasco, potentially thousands of students are feeling “ignored” because they were not given the centre assessment grades (CAGs) other students received.

Most of the over 700,000 A-Level exams taken every year are sat by students enrolled at some form of educational institution. But there are many more – estimates range from the low thousands up to 40,000 – who sit them externally, either studying independently, with a tutor or through some form of distance learning course.

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While the vast majority of students are now being awarded their CAGs – i.e. teacher-predicted grades – after the government decided to scrap Oqual’s controversial algorithm, many external students have been left effectively without a grade, or with what they feel are inaccurate CAGs.

This is because their exam centres refused to provide them with CAGs earlier this year, due to what they said was a lack of evidence on which to base the predictions. This is despite, in many cases, students being taught by the same teachers throughout their school careers.

Those I spoke to have lost out on university places and job offers, and now find themselves “left behind”.

Ali Jamil, 19, failed to achieve his predicted grades in 2019 when he had to take time out of studying to care for his father, who had lost his eyesight, so decided to resit his A-Levels externally this year. He was “left in a black hole” when he was refused CAGs in May.

Manpreet Kaur, 19, was “devastated” when she was refused a CAG.

“I was going to be the first person to go to uni in my family, and everyone had hopes for me, but now I don’t even feel like trying – and the government has failed us,” she said. “I have no motivation left. What was even the point of putting so much effort and money into exams if this was all I was going to get?”

Some, like Snthiya Kumar, 19, are unhappy with the CAGs they were given as external students. Snthiya had to resit one exam for the grade she needed to get into her chosen university, and was predicted that A by her tutor – but her CAG was a B, meaning she missed her university offer. “It’s really a shame,” she says “because the centre does not know me at all.”

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An Ofqual spokesperson said that they “worked with exam boards to create alternative options for private candidates whose original centre may have decided a centre assessment grade could not be submitted, subsequently allowing candidates to consider transferring from one centre to another.”

However, for many, this was not how things played out. The responses given to external students by exam centres seem to have varied wildly, with some told in May that no external students would be entered by any centres, and others encouraged to apply through prohibitively expensive private centres, with some quoted more than £1,000.

Many of these students are now being advised to take another year out. This will mean having to fork out more money in 2021, for tuition, the cost of sitting exams and for UCAS applications. This makes getting into university now feel beyond the realms of possibility for many of these working class students.

The best solution, according to the students I spoke to, would be to award them their UCAS-predicted grades – often informed by their tutors – as the closest comparative option to the internal students’ CAGs.

They also propose a “double lock” system – a choice between whichever result is highest, their UCAS-predicted grade or the grade from an exam they will sit in October.

Mark Corver of DataHE, which helps universities use data, tweeted that “UCAS predicted grades deserve more attention”, adding that “they give accurate and testable estimates”, partly because “background, such as school, sex or area” are not accounted for.

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However, some experts – such as education consultant Claire Rose – have reservations about using the UCAS predictions, because the methodology can vary, while centre assessment grades are calculated through a formalised process.

The inescapable problem underlying all this is that students need grades, but haven’t sat exams. That was always going to cause issues, but the feeling among these students is that they’ve been left out of the government’s solution because there aren’t enough of them for it to really matter.

Whether the government decides to act to support this significant minority will indicate whether they genuinely care about the future of every A-level student in Britain, or are simply content to stem the tide of press and public opprobrium.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Those who do not receive a grade this summer can sit their exams in the autumn. The Universities Minister recently sent a letter to all Vice Chancellors asking for universities [to] be as flexible as possible in their admissions, as well as to take into account a range of evidence when admitting students to courses to ensure every young person can progress to the destination they deserve.

“Universities may be able to offer January starts or deferred places to students taking exams in autumn and we encourage students to speak directly to their provider to determine what flexibility exists.”