Parents in UK prepare for legal action over A-level results

Parents who fear this summer’s teacher-assessed A-levels will be unfair are already contacting lawyers about how to appeal against their children’s grades, the Observer understands.

Ministers abandoned an algorithm designed to deliver marks after last summer’s chaotic results season. However, teachers, unions and academics are concerned that this summer could see serious fallout amid claims of grade inflation and major disparities in the way different schools assess their pupils. With exams cancelled, teachers are assessing grades.

Education lawyers say some parents are already panicking about teacher bias in awarding grades, or whether special educational needs and disabilities will be properly taken into account.

Amara Ahmad, an education lawyer at the law firm Doyle Clayton, said that even though A-level grades will not be released until 10 August, she is already receiving approaches about challenging them.

“Parents want to start preparing for appeals now,” she said. “Some are in the dark about the grades their child has achieved throughout the academic year or what evidence the teacher-assessed grades will be based on.”

Teaching leaders are angry that ministers took so long to come up with ways to ensure that pupils could be compared between schools, despite calls months ago for a clear plan. They are concerned that teachers will be the ones “hung out to dry” should grades be challenged. Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “My concern is that teachers will just be left in the lurch by a secretary of state who has created this situation and then walks away saying ‘teachers clearly can’t assess pupils’.”

There is also serious frustration among head teachers that the appeals process for pupils unhappy with their grades remains unclear. Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We really didn’t have to be here. Teachers, parents and students still don’t know what the appeals process will look like. We tried to help the government get on the front foot. Here we are on the back foot again.”

In last year’s A-levels fiasco, exams regulator Ofqual used a standardisation algorithm that downgraded almost 40% of predicted grades. This year’s model is fairer, lawyers say, but still flawed. Like many, Ahmad is still dealing with claims against last year’s grades, more than nine months after results day, often focusing on allegations of bias. She has had some successes, but says the “overwhelming response” from the exam board is that teachers were given discretion to make these decisions and they should not be overturned.

Parents who have battled against the 2020 system say it has been a bruising experience. Catherine Brioche, a mother from Altrincham, is a vocal member of the A-level Grading Issues Support Group for parents and students, which now has 1,500 members. Her son lost a lucrative Pricewaterhouse Coopers degree apprenticeship in computer science at Birmingham University because he did not get the grades he needed. His school agreed that his computer science result should not have been marked down because his class of five was so small that their use of historical data was unfair. They appealed against his grade, but Ofqual rejected the appeal.

Brioche is considering legal action. She says: “In my experience parents have no power. There are a lot of parents who are really worried about this year’s system, but they are too frightened to speak out in case they make things worse for their children. For parents who are still fighting last year’s grades now it has become a full-time job.”

Brioche says parents with Year 13 children are turning to her group asking members to recommend lawyers in preparation for making challenges.

Some members have children who are “resitting” their A-Levels this year – though again without a formal exam. “They are frightened,” she says. “They know they didn’t fare well under last year’s system so they just don’t trust what is happening.”

One mother, who asked not to be named in case it could affect her daughter’s resit grade, told the Observer that she has been battling without success to get her daughter’s art A-Level marked up. She does not think the school took into account work missed due to mental ill health, including a month in residential care. She says her daughter struggled during lockdown and didn’t complete work that she later discovered would be used to determine her grade.

She says: “My experiences of trying to get justice for my daughter, or even an acknowledgement that decisions could be challenged, has left me with no faith at all in our exam system.”

Rhys Palmer, an education lawyer at HCB solicitors, says they are being contacted by worried parents of students with special educational needs or disabilities. “They are concerned that schools may not take into consideration the difficulties their child may have faced this year such as bereavement, illness or as a result of the lack of reasonable adjustments when assessing their grades.”

One client said their child with SEN was not given the extra time they were entitled to in their mock exams. The parent didn’t complain at the time because they had no idea how crucial the mocks would be in determining their child’s actual A-level result.

Although students unhappy with their grades can appeal this summer, Ahmad says parents are worried that Ofqual has stipulated that the school must be the one to make the appeal against its own grades.

She says: “This is the school marking their own homework. And it’s not clear to me what happens if the school says no to an appeal.”

A spokesperson for Ofqual said schools must submit an appeal to an exam board if a student requests it. He said: “Our analysis of summer 2020’s grades found no evidence of systematic bias against disabled students, other protected characteristics or those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“This year, we have published updated guidance for teachers, informed by a literature review, on how to avoid bias. This encourages teachers to seek input from specialist teachers, such as qualified teachers of the deaf or other education professionals, where appropriate. In addition, the exam boards have published training materials for teachers on making objective judgments.”

BY Anna Fazackerley and Michael Savage

Courtesy: The Guardian

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