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A-levels: Pupils in Wales post record top grades

A-levels: Pupils in Wales post record top grades

Media playback is unsupported on your device Media captionBradley Desmier was predicted a B, C and a merit but got a D, E and a pass Top grades at A-level have gone up in Wales, after a chaotic summer when schools shut and exams were cancelled. But final results are on average significantly lower than

Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionBradley Desmier was predicted a B, C and a merit but got a D, E and a pass

Top grades at A-level have gone up in Wales, after a chaotic summer when schools shut and exams were cancelled.

But final results are on average significantly lower than those estimated by teachers, which the exams watchdog said were “too generous”.

The education minister stepped in to pledge grades would be no lower than pupils’ earlier AS results, and up to 4,500 may now be given improved grades.

Teaching unions said some results were “unfair and unfathomable”.

But the exams watchdog said the grades were “meaningful and robust”.

The late intervention by the Welsh Government on Wednesday followed an outcry in Scotland after thousands of results were initially downgraded, sparking changes in other parts of the UK.

Top grade A-level results in Wales

% of A and A* grades awarded

Qualifications Wales said last week that teacher estimates had been “generous”, resulting in thousands of grades being adjusted down.

This affected more than four in 10 of all grades – more than 12,500.

But after the minister intervened, students whose results today are worse than their earlier AS grades in that subject – it is believed this could involve between 3,000 and 4,500 – will now see their A-levels readjusted “as soon as possible”.

The results show:

  • A record proportion of A and A* grades – 29.9%, up 2.9 percentage points from 2019. But this is less than the 40.4% estimated after the initial teacher assessments
  • 42.2% of final A-level grades are lower than the predicted grades based on assessment; 53.7% are the same and 4.1% are higher
  • The proportion achieving A* is 10.8% – adjusted downwards from the original estimate of 15.4%
  • More pupils on free school meals saw their A-levels downgraded – 48.1%, compared to 45.3% for pupils not eligible
  • 98.6% achieved passes A*-E, up 1% on 2019
  • The gap between boys and girls is slightly wider than last year – with A* to C grades for 76.5% of boys and 82.3% of girls
  • 22.2% achieved an A* or A for AS-levels, up 1.9 percentage points from last year.

Education Minister Kirsty Williams said she had to make sure that those changes did not disadvantage Welsh students, and so she was giving a guarantee that a final A-level grade cannot be lower than a pupil’s AS grade.

“This will mean – and I have received assurances from Ucas and universities – that students can speak with confidence to their prospective universities regarding their A-level grades,” Ms Williams added.

Image caption

Education Minister Kirsty Williams meets students at Merthyr College

What has been the problem?

The qualifications watchdog found that the estimated grades by teachers had been too generous in Wales.

If you look at the last 10 years, usually about a quarter of grades are at the top – last year it was around 27%, when record numbers of pupils got A and A*s.

But Qualifications Wales found if it had gone along with the estimates for this summer then more than 40% would have been A and A* grades.

The watchdog said that was “generous”. So aiming to keep the integrity of the qualifications – for the sake of employers and universities – and to be fair to students, Qualifications Wales revised the results.

How many grades were adjusted?

Proportion of final A-level grades relating to original assessments

The majority of students (53.7%) get the same as the original assessment grade while the remainder (42.2%) get a lower grade. A small proportion get a higher grade.

The watchdog says it has also been monitoring to ensure the exams are fair in terms of disadvantaged groups and gender gaps.

But these are extraordinary times, with schools closed and pupils unable to sit the exams they had worked for.

Once ministers in England and Scotland had stepped in to overrule the usual exam moderation practices it was inevitable that Wales would have to follow suit.

Students who get their grades today are being told if their results are lower than their earlier AS level grades, they will be issued with revised ones by the WJEC as soon as possible.

Education expert Gareth Evans, from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, said some students would still wonder if they might have performed better than expected.

“While it will doubtless be of some comfort to those who performed well at the halfway stage of their A-levels, it will be of scant consolation to those pinning their hopes on boosting scores at the end of the course,” he said.

“Issues with the artificial moderation of grades allocated by teachers remains. The right of pupils to challenge their grades as appropriate is absolutely essential.”

What has been the reaction?

Eithne Hughes, director of the ASCL Cymru union said: “We have received many calls from school leaders expressing their frustration, confusion, and disappointment at the results awarded to their students.

“They report that grades have been pulled down in a way that they feel to be utterly unfair and unfathomable, and they are extremely concerned about the detrimental impact on the young people concerned.”  

Neil Foden, a north Wales-based member of the national executive of the National Education Union, said that from his contact with schools, more than 90% of headteachers were unhappy with the grades.

“There is real concern in schools about the number of learners whose results have been downgraded from the teacher estimates,” he said.

Dilwyn Roberts-Young, of Welsh teaching union Ucac, said: “There remains serious concern that there are many discrepancies at individual and centre level, in spite of the education minister’s pledge last night.

“The last minute changes and the results of individuals are inevitably going to create anxiety and we hope we will not see this repeated next week.”

Qualifications Wales chief executive Philip Blaker said this year’s process had not disadvantaged particular groups of pupils.

“We have analysed attainment gaps this year relative to previous years – looking at aspects such as gender, age and eligibility for free school meals”, he said.

“Our analysis shows no statistically significant differences this year relative to other years.”

A-levels grades in the UK

Proportion of grades in each nation

The results show Wales has proportionately more pupils with top grades and grades A* to C than in England, but fewer than in Northern Ireland.

But the performance at both A* to C and A*-A grades in Wales is higher than in all regions of England, apart from the south east, which is only slightly higher.

There had also been a 3.3% rise in the proportion of A* to C grades in Wales, higher than elsewhere.

How is Wales different to Scotland and England on this issue?

In Wales, AS exams taken earlier were cited as reliable evidence towards estimating A-level performance.

In Scotland, the row over the downgrading of results for Higher exams has affected 75,000 pupils, with claims the method unfairly penalised pupils at schools which had historically not performed as well.

The Scottish government has now promised all pupils would get the grades predicted by teachers.

In England, pupils have now been promised their final results will be no lower than their mock exams – with an option in the appeal system of a resit brought forward to the autumn.

A key difference between Wales and England is that English pupils will be able to resit in the autumn if they are unhappy with their grades.

There are no exams for Welsh pupils in October, although the usual GCSE Maths, Welsh and English exams are due to go ahead in November.

What do pupils say?

Image caption

Caitlyn Foley said she had a “faint idea but it went better than I was expecting”

At Merthyr College, Caitlyn Foley got an A* and three As.

“It’s been a bit weird having to deal with all the changes so last minute,” she said. “We thought the teacher’s predicted grades were final but then we found out that there was a bit more than that,” she said.

“Obviously the announcement last night that we wouldn’t get less than what we got in AS, that was a bit reassuring.”

Fellow student Tom Bush, who got an A and two Bs, added: “I’ve actually got lower now than I had at AS in Psychology which is odd but hopefully I’ll go up.”

Image caption

Zac Evans may appeal his design and technology grade

Zac Evans, a pupil at Ysgol Glan Clwyd, St Asaph, said he got Cs in art, design and technology, and an E in PE.

“I’m going to look into an appeal with the hope of getting a higher grade in DT because I was hoping for a B but it will all be OK in the long run.

“I’ve just had advice from the headmaster and they’ll be releasing how the application process works on Monday because they say it’s changing and I’ll be looking into it.”

Image caption

The Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC) in Cardiff is the main exam board and will handle appeals

Can I appeal?

Qualifications Wales has been asked to quickly make any relevant adjustments to the appeals process and liaise with other exam regulators.

Its advice to pupils getting results is:

  • If your A-level grade is the same or higher than your AS level, then no action is required.
  • If the grade is lower it will be replaced with the same grade as that received for the AS level – and revised grades will be issued by WJEC as soon as possible.
  • If needed, students can contact their prospective university to advise them of the change.

As things stand, appeals have to be made through a school or college, rather than direct to the WJEC exam board – and there are limited grounds. These are restricted to the process – such as the exam board using the wrong data to calculate a final grade.

It will not allow schools and colleges to rethink their estimated grades or ranking of pupils. If other mistakes are highlighted through an appeal, the other pupils affected will not see their grades lowered, the exam board has said.

Image copyright
Getty Images

Image caption

Students pose for a photograph with their A-level results at Ffynone House School in Swansea

Jackie Parker, head of Crickhowell School in Powys said: “We will all be working to look through every individual child’s performance data to look at what results they’ve achieved and to ensure if appeals are necessary they are going forward positively.

“I think the WJEC and others have tried to be as fair as they can but I personally think there’s more work to do here.

“For me, the moral purpose of leadership is to ensure that our young people are not disadvantaged in any way.”

Lisa Thomas, principal of Merthyr College, said it had been a very unsettling time and results would now be closely scrutinised.

“If we feel that there are learners that have been disadvantaged in any way then we would be looking to use the appeals process,” she said.

How schools’ past performance is accounted for

There has been concern about how the “standardisation” process looks at schools and colleges’ previous results.

In Wales, this does not apply to the process for A-levels, the Welsh Bacc and some GCSEs where you already have a lot of hard data from previous assessment – such as AS levels – to work from.

But average results from 2017-19 are taken into account when standardising most GCSEs. Schools could appeal to the WJEC if they think there were significant circumstances or events in those previous years which might bring the average down.

However, currently there is no scope for pupils to appeal against the grade they were given by their school or college – the Centre Assessment Grade (CAG).

If pupils have concerns about bias or discrimination in allocating those grades, they can appeal to the WJEC and a process similar to a malpractice complaint would be followed, but those are expected to be rare.

In other years there can be requests for exam scripts to be reviewed, but this is obviously not an option when no exams have been taken.

The minister has announced, however, that the appeal process will be free for all students.

Qualifications Wales has set a 17 September deadline for initial reviews and then a 42-day deadline for appeals to be dealt with by the WJEC exam board. A further independent review is possible.


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Susan E. Lopez

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