‘This Year Is Just Madness’: English State School Kids Slam Unfair A-Levels Grades

An algorithm used to generate exam grades has negatively impacted students at comprehensive state schools and people of colour.
August 13, 2020, 3:30pm
‘This Year is Just Madness’: State Schools Kids Slam Unfair A-Levels Grades
Photo: Alamy. 

State comprehensive school students in England have had their A-Level results unfairly downgraded and lost places at university, thanks to a statistical model used to replace exams this year.

Due to the cancellation of exams during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, an algorithm was used to generate students’ grades, based on their predicted results. However this system has unfairly disadvantaged students from state schools, as it also takes into account the school’s results in past years.

Data from the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual), a non-ministerial government department that regulates qualifications, backs this up. While overall, 39.1 percent of A-Levels grades were marked down this year and just 2.2 percent upgraded, private school kids achieved better results this year, compared to 2019.

According to Ofqual data, independent schools received double the increase in A* and A grades when compared to state comprehensive schools. Independent schools also saw a year-on-year rise of 4.7 percent in A*s and As, while state comprehensive schools only saw a 2 percent increase in the top grades.

Sooriya Kanesan, who received his A-Level results today, believes that his grades were unfairly affected because he attends a state school. Kanesan, who studies at an academy school in London, was predicted AAC, but received AAD. He has missed out on a place at London School of Economics, and was rejected by other universities he applied to.

“I’m unsure of why my grades were pulled down, especially in economics,” Kanesan tells VICE News. “I’ve maintained a strong track record and even the department has always agreed I’ve been an A student. I honestly think it was the state school background as we had departments change a lot over the period of years.”

Kanesan is planning to appeal his grades and has written a letter to his local MP, but feels demoralised by the situation. “This is really mentally taxing and quite frustrating – all my sacrifices and struggles seem meaningless,” he says. “[I’ve] been rejected by all [universities] because of exams I never did. This year is just madness.”

Olivia, who attends a comprehensive sixth form college in Manchester, had her grades lowered from CCC to DDC. She believes that attending a sixth form college impacted her results. “The school was located in a working-class area and had a lot of working-class students from different backgrounds,” she tells VICE News. “There are quite noticeable differences in the A-Level grades given.”

“It is frustrating to know that because I’m working class it is ‘acceptable’ for the education system to deprive us of the same opportunities as others, as we are labelled as less academic,” Olivia continues. “Although it’s not said directly, it is as if the system has no hope in our futures and expects us to not achieve in life and just ‘deal with it’.”

In an interview with LBC today, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson conceded that the algorithm could cause these disparities for state school students. “There is sometimes a danger where you have an exceptionally high-performing child in a low-performing school to be in a situation where they don’t get the grades that they want to,” said Williamson. “What we’ve asked the exam boards is, where they think there may be outliers, is actually to be contacting the schools to talk with them to make sure that appeals are put forward.”

Many have criticised the process by which A-Level grades were determined this year. The president of the National Union of Students (NUS), Larissa Kennedy, tweeted today that racism and classism had played a part in the results. She said: “Due to a classist, racist moderation system, not everyone will receive the grades they deserve.”

Ofqual denied any accusations of racial or class bias in its awarding of grades.

Hetty Davies, London programmes officer from education charity Arts Emergency, told VICE News that this year’s exam results exacerbate existing inequalities in Britain’s education system.

"The system put in place for A-Levels has had a terrible impact on many year 13 students, with close to 40 percent of entries being downgraded,” she said. “Grading them based on previous cohort’s results shows a complete disregard for young people as individuals, the effort they have put into their studies and the futures they are working towards. The process this year only further exacerbates the disadvantages within the education system that hits marginalised young people the most."