The UK’s A-level fiasco has left thousands without grades

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When the government announced its u-turn on A-level grades, school pupils across the UK breathed a collective sigh of relief. With exams cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, students had initially been awarded centre assessed grades (CAGs) based on an algorithm, throwing up mixed and controversial results. But the outcry from schools and students, who felt they had been graded unfairly, prompted a formal apology from the government and an announcement that teacher-estimated grades could be used instead where preferable.
For up to 20,000 candidates, however, the good news was meaningless. Neither able to upgrade or downgrade, these “independent” learners have been left without grades at all, on account of the fact they do not have school teachers or exam centres able to vouch for them. As a result, they have been left in limbo – with many fearing they will be unable to move on to college or university at all.

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Who are these pupils, and how could such a thing have happened? Each year, a proportion of external candidates are made up of adult learners choosing to go back and retake a failed or missing GCSE or A-level, often to assist them in a career change such as nursing or teaching, which requires pass grades in maths and english GCSE. A larger proportion are home-schooled students. All of them, according to exams regulators, lack the formal evidence required to calculate a grade.
In the UK, an estimated 54,000 school-age children are home educated – that is, they are educated full time from home independently of schools, as opposed to school pupils forced to learn remotely as a result of the pandemic. There are a number of reasons why families might go down the independent route: for some, home education is a philosophical choice; for others it is a last resort after experiences with bullying, mental or physical health problems, repeated pupil exclusion, or a feeling of being let down by the state in terms of support and provisions for special needs. The exact number of home-educated students is unclear, because there is no official register, but research by the University of Exeter suggests between 10-15,000 home-educated teenagers were due to be taking GCSE or A-level exams this year.
When this year’s exams were cancelled, school pupils could rely on their teachers’ prediction for their grades and mock exam papers. But for those outside the system, things became a lot more complicated. External candidates must pay a school or private centre to sit their exams in a formal environment, but many of these schools and centres have declined to award CAGs to home-educated pupils, claiming they don’t know them well enough to determine their abilities.
“While GCSE students should be able to manage the delayed exams alongside their Year 12 studies – albeit [this is] frustrating – this will be most damaging for Year 13 students who depended on these results for a university place and may now have to defer,” says Hannah Titley, director of professional home-schooling group The Golden Circle. Given the current “tough economic climate” caused by the pandemic, she believes the cancelled exams will put home-educated students at an unfair disadvantage: “It’s hard to get a job, internships and work experience are oversubscribed, and they have been set back a year in their academic studies. We believe that Year 13 private candidates should have been offered the chance to take exams remotely, under observation by a member of staff at the exam centres, so that sufficient evidence could be provided to award a grade.”

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Ridouan Asselman is one of the students left without a grade. A bright pupil who can speak seven languages, Asselman made the decision to resit his A-level exams as an independent candidate after personal circumstances meant he did not receive the grades he wanted in 2018. He had hoped to study law and French law at Exeter University later this year, and his Ucas-predicted grades (estimates from teachers for students to send with their university applications) suggested he would have no problem getting in. But in May, Asselman received a letter “out of the blue” informing him the school would not be able to award him CAGs after all.
“I’ve been stressed, not sleeping…some days I’m just really angry,” he says. There have been calls by private candidates urging universities to accept students’ Ucas predicted grades instead of CAGs, and up until results day Asselman was “still hopeful I might get a place. But, on the day, they told me I had not met the conditions”.
Responding to the concerns from ungraded pupils, the Department for Education asked universities to be “as flexible as possible” given the circumstances and said “those who do not receive a grade this summer can sit their exams in the autumn”. A spokesperson says: “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.” But Asselman feels his generation “has been massively let down” nonetheless. “I want my year of hard work to be acknowledged,” he says. “It’s not fair to be told that doesn’t count for anything.”
Israt Rahman has been left in a similar situation. Predicted one A* and 2 As at A-level this year, she was offered places at five universities including King’s College London to study history. But on results day she was left with nothing. “I’m finding it really hard to accept everything that has happened, particularly the U-turn for the majority of the cohort, which makes me devastated that we’ve been neglected and confused given we deserve the same treatment,” she says. “Covid-19 does not discriminate, so why have we been discriminated against? It truly is a classist attempt to neglect 20,000 students, many of whom are from working class, low income families or have made the brave decision to retake to obtain a better life for themselves.”

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Rahman was quoted £1,195 to take her three A-levels at a private exam centre, a price she says is “ridiculous” and unaffordable for many people. Since mock exams are not compulsory, many including Asselman chose not to take them for cost reasons, but if he had, it would have provided the school with the evidence needed for a grade. “If we had more money, Ridouan would be going off to university right now – and that’s the real injustice,” says his mum, Joanne Asselman. “That’s why I’m angry and upset”.
“Exam poverty” is a major barrier for many in the community, according to Alison Sauer, a trustee of the Centre for Personalised Education who runs a legal advice group for home-educating families. “Schools are profiteering from external candidates which is grossly unfair. Most children will register to take their exams with a school because it’s cheaper – but they will still charge a large administration fee,” she says.
Students who paid centres money to register for exams but did not receive grades are still waiting on refunds – some equivalent to several thousands of pounds’ worth – and Sauer and colleagues are “seriously considering” legal action. “It’s a breach of contract – families are already out of pocket and now they are expected to register somewhere else and pay more money? Some parents give up their career to home-educate their children – they simply can’t afford it.”
Anna Mountford-Zimdars, who led on the University of Exeter research, believes the exams chaos is indicative of a deeper problem, as home-educated pupils are unsupported and overlooked by the state. “There is a paradox in that the UK government allows home education but it doesn’t constructively support it as a choice,” she says.
A survey of 480 home-educating families run by the university found that half of respondents had at least one child with special educational needs – and researchers like Mountford-Zimdars have evidence to believe this number is growing in line with cuts to support for these children in mainstream schools. “There is a prejudice in policy circles that home-educated children are those with very wealthy parents who are seeking an alternative lifestyle choice. Actually, there’s been a massive rise in ‘forced’ homeschooling – where parents don’t have a choice. This is a massive equality issue.”
As a parent who has taught her own children from home for 20 years, Sauer agrees that the exams crisis “is yet more evidence of the punitive treatment of parents who often have been given no choice but to electively home-educate, due to the system failing their children. It is deeply prejudicial, and that is the bar for judicial review.”
If it does make it to court, Sauer’s will be a landmark case against the state. Whatever the outcome, the exams experience has been one that students will not easily forget. “I want to study law, and by the principles of law you’re innocent until proven guilty. It feels like I’m being charged without any representation or room for appeal,” says Asselman. “Ofqual think that because proportionally there’s a small amount of us it will go without notice – but we won’t let it go.”
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