Thousands of A-level pupils face race against time to win appeals

University places in peril amid exam chaos: Thousands of A-level pupils face race against time to win appeals if marks estimated by teachers are downgraded

  • Marks will be based on teachers’ estimates of what entrants would have gotten
  • But exam boards are expected to lower nearly 40 per cent of A-level grades
  • Exam boards will not commit to a time frame to raise marks for those who appeal 

A-level pupils whose marks are downgraded by computer face missing out on university places while exam boards sift through a flood of appeals, experts warned last night.

This year’s exams were cancelled because of coronavirus so marks will be based on teachers’ estimates of what entrants would have achieved.

But exam boards are expected to lower nearly 40 per cent of grades using a computerised marking scheme to ensure results are not significantly higher than previous years. This means tens of thousands of pupils will not achieve the marks they had hoped for when they get their A-level grades on Thursday.

Pictured: Lexie Bell and her father Michael Bell who are suing exams regulators over A-level grading system

As a result, they may not be able to attend their first-choice university unless they successfully appeal.

Those who appeal must be awarded a higher grade by September 7 to attend the university they have chosen. But the Daily Mail has learned that exam boards, which are in charge of appeals, have refused to commit to this timeframe. Instead, they have given themselves 42 days to resolve complaints – meaning the university term will have started before most cases are dealt with.

Many pupils, teachers and parents in England are nervous about this year’s results after last week’s debacle over the Scottish Higher exams.

In Scotland, 124,000 grades awarded by teachers were lowered, with the poorest entrants getting their marks downgraded at more than double the rate of the richest.

Last night Tory MP Robert Halfon, chairman of the education select committee, said: ‘Our select committee report predicted a potential Wild West system which favours the well-heeled and the sharp-elbowed, and doesn’t appear fair.

‘It is absolutely vital that the appeals system is done quickly and efficiently, in the space of a couple of weeks, to ensure that students get their fair grades so they can progress to university.’

Pupils in England who are unhappy with their grades must rely on their schools to mount appeals for them, based on stringent criteria, potentially adding to the delays. Last night none of the ‘big three’ exams boards – AQA, OCR and Pearson Edexcel – provided assurances that it would be able to meet the September 7 deadline set by university admissions body Ucas.

The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), which represents the exam boards, said its members were ‘committed to completing appeals as quickly as possible’.

But it admitted grade appeals may take six weeks or longer. This means a complaint lodged on A-levels results day – and most will come later than this – does not have to be dealt with until September 24.

‘The awarding bodies aim to complete initial reviews within 42 calendar days of the receipt of the application,’ a JCQ handbook for head teachers states.

I worry my marks will be unfairly downgraded 

A girl who is predicted to get an A* and two A grades at A-level fears she will be marked down – because she is one of her school’s brightest pupils.

Lexie Bell, a sixth-former at Shoeburyness High School in Southend-on-Sea, thinks she is at risk because previous year groups have failed to get above a C in her chosen subjects.

When her teacher’s predicted grades are processed, the school’s previous lower performances could mean her results are downgraded to put them in line with the overall trend.

She is now worried about not making her offer from Sussex University.

‘Ofqual is effectively tying in students to the performance of previous students at their school, which is in no way representative of an individual’s ability to do well,’ Lexie’s father Michael told The Observer. ‘It will take too long. By the time their appeals have been decided, pupils will already have lost their places at university’.

Lexie, 18, was studying English literature, psychology and religious education when the exams were cancelled because of coronavirus.

Mr Bell is crowdfunding for a judicial review of Ofqual’s decision-making.

‘I can’t tell you how stressed my daughter is,’ he said. ‘If her grades get marked down, because of the grades the school has achieved previously, the sense of injustice will be huge.’


Neil Roskilly, chief executive of the Independent Schools Association, which represents more than 500 private schools, said: ‘Forty-two days is disappointing because the process will be simple.’ He said the JCQ had ‘buried’ this crucial detail at the foot of the document – and warned that the delay could also see youngsters who miss out on their grades fail to enrol in time for fresh exams in the autumn.

Those who are challenging their marks are encouraged to contact their university’s admission departments as soon as possible to discuss their position.

But Mr Roskilly said he was worried that middle-class ‘pushy parents’ would find it easier to negotiate than those from poorer backgrounds. ‘The universities… don’t have the set-up to fully consider a student’s academic record,’ he added.

In a recent consultation on appeals, one exam board warned England’s exams watchdog Ofqual: ‘While each initial review may not take a significant time to resolve, the volume of appeals may mean that the response to an appeal may not be swift.’

Labour education spokesman Kate Green said she was worried the appeals process was not ‘robust enough’.

Ofqual has admitted that ‘high ability’ students at poor schools stand to get worse-than-deserved results this year because ‘they fall outside the pattern of results’ the computer model relies on.

The proportion of teachers believing their A-level and GCSE students are likely to get a ‘fair deal’ has fallen from 39 per cent to just 24 per cent, a poll published by TES revealed. One teacher said: ‘I do not believe awarding results based on the historic performance of a school is fair. Year groups will have different abilities, and some cohorts will be stronger than previous cohorts.’

Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield said her ‘real worry that the most disadvantaged children will be the ones that will miss out and those in schools that have not been faring well, or indeed those with a history of poor achievement, will be downgraded by the algorithm’.

Schools minister Nick Gibb defended this year’s system, saying it was the ‘fairest and best system that we could devise’.

An Ofqual spokesman said: ‘Exam boards are committed to completing appeals as quickly as possible.’

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