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Update on Exams and Centre Assessed Grades

on Friday, 28 August 2020.

We are now in the post-results phase of Ofqual's 'exceptional arrangements'.

The Government's U-turn on the standardisation of centre assessed grades (CAGs) for this year's A-level and GCSE grading has brought with it a change in fortunes for many schools and pupils. It has also marked a shift of emphasis for those who are unhappy with their grades or who have not secured their chosen pathways, towards schools.

Ofqual has issued fresh and updated guidance to reflect the change of arrangements, which has answered some key questions about remaining options for challenge of results. The arrangements for appeals and challenges have not changed. What has changed, is that schools can perhaps expect to receive a greater number of enquiries and complaints concerning CAGs given their increased significance, and appeal routes based on exam board errors will be largely redundant.

We have already received a large number of enquiries from schools about how they should manage parent and pupil dissatisfaction with results generally and CAGs in particular. We have touched upon these issues in previous blogs and in our recent webinar, but thought it may be helpful to summarise these in this new context.

CAG Concerns and Queries

If pupils or parents are unhappy with their CAGs or have a question about them, they should raise these matters with the school in the first instance. This may engage one or more of four procedures, as follows:

  1. Accuracy check - Schools are required to have systems in place to check that no errors were made in assigning or communicating their CAGs to pupils on request.
  2. Appeal request and review - Schools are required to have systems in place to consider a request for an appeal, to launch one where merited, and if the school's decision is that an appeal is not warranted, for that decision to be reviewed/appealed upon request.
  3. Complaints procedures - Schools remain bound to consider concerns raised by parents (and if the school does not have a separate policy for pupils, we would recommend by pupils too) under their parental complaints procedures.
  4. Malpractice procedures - Schools are obliged to report allegations, suspicions and findings of 'malpractice' (including maladministration) to exam boards. Specifically the duty is the Head of Centre's (usually the Head) and according to JCQ regulations, the report must be made "immediately" and in a prescribed form. A grade can be changed if malpractice is established.

Many of these procedures will overlap and, where schools do not have a dedicated procedure for 1 & 2, we suggest that the complaints policy (adapted as required) is used as a vehicle for dealing with these requests. There may also be an overlap with other procedures, such as subject access requests.

Appeal Grounds

Only one of the original three appeal grounds will apply to CAGs - the 'wrong data' ground. That ground is now limited to 'incorrect centre information' and it is worth noting the Ofqual guidance on this very narrow right of appeal, which says:

"It is particularly important this summer that awarding organisations are able promptly to distinguish between genuine errors, which might characteristically be administrative mistakes such as transposing digits or confusing Learners with similar names, and attempts to amend Centre Assessment Grades or rank order information by revisiting or revising the professional judgments which underpin them, which is not permitted."

How Else Can a Parent or Pupil Challenge the School?

If there isn't any basis for an appeal, a pupil's CAG can only be changed following a finding of malpractice (including maladministration) against the school by the relevant exam board(s). Such a finding is also likely to lead to sanctions for staff or the school itself.

The Ofqual guidance sets out variously, that exam boards should treat as potential malpractice, evidence of any of the following:

  • Bias
  • Discrimination
  • Any other factor suggesting the school didn’t act with due care or integrity

Where these issues are raised directly or indirectly with the school, you should bear in mind your obligations both to parents concerning parental complaints and those you have as an exam centre to report malpractice allegations to the relevant exam board(s).

In many cases, allegations are made in vague and/or speculative terms, and given the serious implications of a malpractice report, we recommend schools seek clarity from exam boards in such cases over whether and when a formal report should be made and, if not immediately, whether the exam board is happy for the school to deal with the matter though its internal procedures. Schools should also note that a failure to report malpractice is itself malpractice.

Coronavirus Legal Advice

Professional Judgements

There is a long history of legal precedent insulating professional judgements from challenge and Ofqual's exceptional arrangements have addressed this issue in terms and unequivocally. The professional judgements of schools and their staff in calculating grades remain protected. Absent any data error or malpractice, parent and pupil complaints can have no bearing on CAGs.

We would therefore recommend caution in how schools approach parent and/or pupil queries or concerns about results, to manage expectations and ensure that schools do not invite challenges based on any difference of perspective. Parents and pupils are not better placed to make professional judgements and schools can stand by them, notwithstanding any sense of disappointment or injustice which may be felt. Care should be taken to manage expectations from an early stage and it is likely to be helpful in many cases to direct parents and pupils to the Ofqual guidance for students which explains in clear terms their limited rights of redress.

Also remember that even if you would have awarded a different CAG than a colleague based on the evidence, unless that colleague has failed to act with due care or integrity, the grade cannot be changed and any attempt to do so could be viewed as malpractice, because your Head of Centre has already certified the accuracy of the CAGs.

Subject Access Requests (SARs)

In terms of SARs, it remains most likely that these will be used by pupils who are unhappy with their CAG and who are looking to challenge their grade or considering whether to sit an exam in the autumn. The advice remains the same in relation to the release of this material, regardless of the purpose:

  • SARs should be made by the pupil or with the pupil's consent/agreement in most cases, unless specific circumstances affect the pupil's understanding of their rights.
  • SARs can be made orally, as well as in writing, so all staff dealing with pupils should know how to identify a SAR and the procedure to follow.
  • Much of the information held will likely have to be released, as limited exemptions apply.
  • Rank order is likely to be less important now, but will still have to be released if requested, unless its release identifies other individuals AND release would be unfair.
  • The usual one month time limit applies.

If you have any questions about this topic or we can support you in any way with these issues, please contact James Garside in our Independent Schools team on 07468 698 937 or Vicki Bowles in our Information Law team on 07469 245 724, or complete the form below.

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