Schools prepare legal challenges over exam results that will impact poorest students the most

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Teachers unions are reportedly seeking legal advice as they prepare for a flood of appeals from parents ahead of A-level results day. The cost of appealing decisions is likely to have added impact for poorer students given ongoing cuts to school’s funding.

Newspaper reports say exam boards are under pressure to make appeals free so poorer pupils do not miss out, and that 40% of teacher predictions for A-level results will be lowered.

The developments come as British students await their final results in a year made extraordinary due to the coronavirus.

The Times reports that education lawyers are working with schools which could be hit with group appeals over results that have not been decided in the classroom this year due to Covid-19.

With exams cancelled, teachers had to decide grades for each student and rank them in order within their class. Those grades are still likely to be changed by exam boards based on schools’ previous results.

While appeals were allowed only on technical grounds in the past, exams regulator Ofqual told the Times it would provide greater scope this year, with schools able to challenge results if they had made rapid improvements or had outstanding year groups.

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Helen Tucker, an education lawyer who works with schools, told the Times: “Virtually all appeals will have to be made by the school. We’re gearing up with school clients wanting to prepare themselves.

“They are anticipating more queries than usual because of the extraordinary circumstances.”

The Daily Telegraph reported that English exam boards are coming under pressure to follow their Scottish counterparts and waive appeal fees this year to ensure fairness across socio-economic backgrounds.

Schools usually have to pay between £8 and £70 per query for GCSE and A-level re-markings.

Leora Cruddas, chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts, which represents academies, told the paper that charging fees may “put schools off appealing”, especially at a time when the pandemic has strained education budgets.

Appeal fees may also create “perverse incentives” where headteachers are put off appealing grades because they want to save money, she said.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said fees must be waived to ensure a “level playing field” and that “the ability to appeal would not be constrained by the funding that is available”.

The Guardian has reported that nearly 40% of A-level grades submitted by teachers are to be downgraded when exam results in England are published next week, as criticism intensifies of this year’s makeshift results.

Elsewhere, the paper said an analysis of the algorithm and data used by Ofqual to distribute grades in the absence of exams found a net 39% of assessments by teachers were likely to be adjusted downwards before students received their results.

That would mean almost 300,000 A-levels would be lower than teachers’ assessments, among more than 730,000 A-level entries in England.

Including GCSEs, which are expected to have a similar downgrade rate, close to a net two million teacher assessments will be adjusted downwards and in many cases ignored completely, the paper said.

While individual families will still have virtually no grounds for appeal, Neil Roskilly, chief executive of the Independent Schools Association, said he is expecting a “flood of appeals” from schools.

“Parents will immediately be putting pressure on schools to make blanket appeals – schools are going to be inundated with requests from parents,” he told the paper.

School exam stock
Exams have been cancelled this year due to the pandemic (David Davies/PA)

The reports come after some 100 school students protested against their exam results in Glasgow on 7 August, amid continued criticism of Scotland’s marking system, with many fearing being marked harshly due to past results from their schools.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) downgraded 124,564 results for exams cancelled due to the pandemic.

Glasgow protest
Students protesting in Glasgow (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Education Secretary John Swinney has said pass rates rose at every level and would have been the highest on record without the downgrading.

Asked about the protests and claims of unfairness, first minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “If you’re a young person … and you have results that are below what your teacher thought you should get, you are going to – understandably – feel very aggrieved.

“And if you think that’s because of the postcode you live in or the school you go to, that is going to be even more pronounced.”

Urging eligible pupils to appeal against their grades, Sturgeon said students are “entitled to be angry and entitled to feel that this is not just”.

“The Government will listen carefully to that, but please don’t lose sight of this next part of the process because this is the part of the process that’s not a statistical model, this is the part of the process that looks at your individual circumstances,” she said.

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