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The situation regarding how Scottish Highers and A-level grades are being awarded this year, a year when final exams could not take place due to COVID-19, is changing rapidly.

With just 1 day to go before A-level results day, here we provide a brief overview of the policy shifts that have taken place in Scotland and the rest of the UK over the past 24 hours.

*Updated as of 12/08 10am BST, subject to change 

What has happened to Scottish Highers Grades?

Due to the pandemic this year’s results were not based on exams. Instead, an algorithm was used which took teacher estimates and validated these estimates against each schools’ previous history of estimating results and attainment.  

Using this methodology, 125,000 Scottish Highers Grades were downgraded from those provided through teacher assessment.

Widespread criticism that the algorithm used to assign Scottish students’ grades was unfair, and particularly impacted upon students from less affluent backgrounds and those who attended schools which had historically performed less well, has led to protests and pressure on the Scottish government.

Initially, the methodology was defended by the Scottish government, however, on Tuesday the Scottish Education Secretary, John Swinney has U-turned and pupils will now have their results upgraded to the original teacher estimate scores.

The University admissions body has now been informed of the changes to grades so that Scottish students’ applications can be processed using the teacher estimates, and students will be issued with new certificates reflecting these grades.

This late and dramatic change has a number of implications for Scotland but also for the wider UK.

1) Will universities and employers see the unmoderated grades from Scottish students as credible?

2) How will these grades be seen alongside other UK grades if students are competing for the same university places?

How does this impact the rest of the UK?

The Scottish U-turn has put pressure on the government in Westminster to make similar concessions ahead of results being released to students on Thursday (institutions will already have the results for their applicants). There is no doubt that exam boards have downgraded teachers estimates in the rest of the UK.

Late on Tuesday evening Gavin Williamson announced a "triple lock" – whereby students will receive a final grade that is the highest out of their estimated grade (using an algorithm based on teachers estimates, similar to Scotland’s original grading process), their mock exam, or an optional back-up written exam in the autumn.

This was updated again this morning with a clarification from England's schools minister Nick Gibb who told BBC Breakfast that mock exams will, in fact, be able to form the basis of student appeals against the grades they are awarded tomorrow. Students whose grades are lower than what they achieved in their mocks can make an appeal to the exam board, providing what he termed as “an extra safety net for a small group of pupils".

Mr Gibbs went on to state that the exams regulator Ofqual will announce the conditions and standards in which mock exams needed to be conducted under in order for them to be eligible for use in an appeal, while admitting that there would not be standardisation.

Defending these recent changes, Mr Gibb stated that there was not confusion in the system and that he would not apologise “for finding solutions – even at the eleventh hour” that prevented students from being disadvantaged.

This is a last-minute change (adding in the Mock Exams) is a political decision to try to alleviate the pressure on the government but it’s not clear how it will work in reality. There are a number of issues with this late announcement;

  • - Will universities accept mock results or go with the exam boards moderated marks?

  • - How will students prove their mock results when certificates aren’t issued?

  • - Not all schools or students do mocks and some schools take them much more seriously than others.

Later today (Wednesday), Kier Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party will make a speech criticising the governments approach. We will have to wait and see what the government decides to do but expect there to be more changes over the next week or two. There is a sense that the detail is still very much being worked through and that the pressure may force the government to make further changes.

What Impact Does This Have on Universities and Clearing? 

  • - This is a significant last-minute change that will cause even more uncertainty in institutions. Having had the grades from UCAS all week and calculated their numbers and Clearing grades to try to hit their SNC, institutions will now need to try to recalculate in the next 24 hours.

  • - Institutions will have carefully trained staff in their call centres and set up IT

  • – The training and the IT will not have included the new Triple Lock of Mock exams

  • – This makes Clearing harder to track and administer and probably causing more uncertainty for students and institutions.- Universities must decide if and how they will accept Mocks as a valid result.

  • -Students, given the uncertainty may be less likely to accept places quickly or may release themselves as policy shifts. Others may wish to defer until there is greater clarity. We may see a much longer Clearing and it will take longer to understand where institutions have landed in terms of SNC and final numbers.

Jonah Duffin
Jonah Duffin12 August 2020