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Teachers say it is “heartbreaking” to watch their personal assessments of students overruled by a “biased” computer algorithm that has disproportionately penalised students from poorer backgrounds.
The cancellation of exams due to the coronavirus pandemic has meant this year’s A-levels and GCSEs have been determined by standardisation modelling that relied on grades submitted by teachers and moderated them using a pupil’s past exam results – as well as the school’s past exam performance.
Nearly 40% of A-level grade recommendations by teachers were downgraded – and teachers feel the government has sent an explicit message that they can’t be trusted to assess their own students accurately.
“Students are at the heart of our profession. Trust us.”
Vix Lowthion, who teaches A-level history, classics and geology, agrees teachers “are professionals who are experienced at accurately predicting grades”. “I take fairness very seriously,” she told HuffPost UK.
“I sat down with colleagues and we looked at every student in turn and all their marks throughout the two years, mock results, coursework and how they were performing in the final weeks before lockdown. We did not predict a bunch of A* and A grades, but a fair reflection of how the class were working.
“To see these grades overruled and dismissed, hundreds of miles from our communities and without seeing any written work that these students were capable off, is heartbreaking.”
“The impact of this on our young people’s mental health is going to be witnessed for years to come.”
Lowthian teaches at a school on the Isle of Wight – an area once described as a “ghetto” by a former chair of Ofsted – and was expecting her grades to be marked down when she spoke to HuffPost UK earlier this week. “I will be gutted for my students if they are downgraded by computer modelling. They are talented and confident and have worked really hard.
“They have had all the opportunities taken away from them. The least we can give this bunch of students are fair results based on their hard work and effort.”
She fears targeting poorer schools will “perpetuate the spiral in terms of funding and quality of teaching” after a decade of “huge” funding cuts to sixth form education.
“Students in deprived areas already have extra obstacles to learning in terms of prior attainment, resources, practical support from home and expectations in school.
“To downgrade results from these schools sends precisely the wrong message to local communities.”
Naomi, who has asked us not to publish her full name, works at a school in a particularly deprived area in the East Riding of Yorkshire.
In the event, most of her students received the grades she had assigned them on Thursday – but schools like hers were more likely to have been downgraded based on their past performance than those in better-off areas, according to Ofqual’s own analysis, which showed 10.4% of students with “low” socio-economic status were knocked below a C grade by the algorithm, compared with 8.3% of the richest students.
Meanwhile the allocation of top grades grew fastest at private schools.
“It’s upsetting and demoralising, but also does inevitably make you feel angry and incensed – not for myself but for our young people who deserved so much more,” she said.
“Some students are going to feel utterly let down by the system and I don’t blame them. The impact of this on our young people’s mental health is going to be witnessed for years to come.
“What we are essentially saying to our young people is: you cannot live in a deprived area and perform well in your academics.”
Naomi insists her school was “extremely responsible and fair” with allocating its own A-level predictions to their pupils. “We want the students to do well, but teachers know what their students are capable of.
“The fact of the matter is that, as teachers, we care. We go into work early, leave work late, arrange and go on trips, mark work at home late into the night and spend weekends planning lessons. It’s because teachers care that we were honest and responsible in our grading process.”
Other A-level teachers across the UK have told HuffPost UK they feel “undervalued”, “disheartened” and “anxious”. Many felt their profession had been “scapegoated” by politicians and the press since the start of lockdown, and said the government’s recent flip-flopping was “mind-boggling” and “laughable”.
“It sends a clear message that the government does not trust its teachers,” one said. “Students are at the heart of our profession. We want them to succeed and do well.
“We care about them and their future. Trust us.”