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Ex-Ofqual boss: 2020 exam grades system a ‘gross miscalculation’

·3-min read
Roger Taylor has said last year’s exam debacle was a ‘gross miscalculation’ of what was ‘acceptable way to treat people' (Centre for Progressive Policy)
Roger Taylor has said last year’s exam debacle was a ‘gross miscalculation’ of what was ‘acceptable way to treat people' (Centre for Progressive Policy)

Officials knew there was a risk of “public dissatisfaction” or legal challenge over 2020 exam grade decisions from the beginning, the former head of Ofqual has said.

Roger Taylor also told The Independent there was a “growing awareness of the likelihood” that the chosen system would not work as results day approached.

After exams were cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, grades were calculated using a controversial algorithm to moderate teacher predictions of what students would achieve in exams.

Nearly 40 per cent of A-level grades were downgraded last year as a result.

Students were allowed to take teacher predictions in a U-turn after a backlash and student protests.

Mr Taylor, who resigned from the exams regulator in December, told The Independent he believed decision-making for 2020 exam grades did not properly assess what the public would find acceptable.

“Everyone knew from the outset that there was a risk of public dissatisfaction with the process and that there was a risk of judicial review,” he said.

“The process around managing risk of judicial review is well understood and was closely managed.”

But he said a recent paper he wrote “makes the point that the process around determining what is acceptable to the public was inadequate and carried too little weight in the policy decisions”.

In the essay for the Centre for Progressive Policy think tank, he said the fiasco was caused by “human decision making” rather than the algorithm used.

In an event after its publication, he said a “gross miscalculation” over what was an “acceptable way to treat people” was behind last year’s fiasco over exam grades.

“Technically, it is true that there were as many people who will have got a higher grade than they would have if they got if they had done an exam, as got a lower rate. But that is not the experience because nobody experiences getting a higher grade than they thought they would have got,” the ex-boss of England’s exam regulator said.

“Everybody who gets a grade lower believes that they have been treated unfairly. And a lot of them – we know for a fact – will be right. And we also know for a fact that we can’t tell which ones are right and which ones are wrong.”

Mr Taylor said this was something “we could identify and establish” from the beginning and why people were “uneasy” throughout this process in meetings.

“We all knew, as it were, that asking people to accept this was a huge thing to ask,” he told The Independent.

Mr Taylor also said it was important to note that calculated grades were not “inherently unethical” or discriminatory against one group in particular.

He told The Independent: “What the miscalculation was, was to think that people might accept that as a reasonable argument and ... accept that it was a fair thing to do.”

He added: “It was absolutely possible to work out in advance that people would not tolerate this.”

In his personal reflection published earlier this month, Mr Taylor wrote: “Allowing a much larger number of students to be admitted would limit the number who were wrongly excluded. This option was, to my knowledge, never seriously considered.”

Even after a U-turn allowed students to take higher teacher-estimated grades, some still missed out on their university places last year, as these predictions were lower than expected, students toldThe Independent.

The Department for Education spokesperson said: “All decisions taken on assessments in 2020 were based on delivering the fairest outcome for students. At all times the department worked closely with Ofqual to find solutions that would allow young people to progress to the next stage of their education or career.”

They added: “We lifted university number caps and provided £20m to increase capacity for university places in the 2020-21 academic year to help ensure students could progress into higher education. Ucas data showed that more students were placed on to their first choice course in 2020 than in 2019.”

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