Thousands of A-level results in England and Wales were downgraded last week after an algorithm was used to moderate grades due to this year's exam cancellations. The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) algorithm saw almost 40% of A-level grades downgraded, a move described as a "huge mess" and "unacceptable" by Robert Halfon, the Conservative chairman of the Education Select Committee.
Exams were cancelled for A-level and GCSE students at the end of March this year due to the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent school closures, with ministers promising a fair system to assign grades to pupils. Angry protests ensued after the results came out last Thursday, with hundreds of students marching through cities around the country at the weekend chanting "Get Gav gone" and "Justice for the working class".
In a surprising U-turn, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced on Monday that A-level and GCSE students would be awarded their teacher-assessed grades instead. His decision comes after Scotland and Northern Ireland ditched the algorithm system ahead of GCSE results being announced. Mr Williamson said he is "incredibly sorry for the distress" caused to pupils.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said on Monday that he is 'incredibly sorry for the distress' caused to pupils.
While the U-turn is good news for many students who had missed out on the places they deserve, there are many who have lost the chance to attend their first choice university place as a result of the delay.
Olamide Belewu, 18, from northwest London, was awarded AAB grades by Ofqual's algorithm last Thursday and based on these grades hopes to study law and French law at the University of Nottingham. However, her predicted grades, AAA – which she has now been awarded – would have secured a place at UCL, her first choice. Due to the delay she appears to have missed out.
Olamide tells Refinery29 that when she first contacted UCL directly through a phone call after her AAA grades were awarded, she was "shut down" and told that clearing and adjustment cannot take place. She then emailed the university explaining her situation and is yet to receive a response. She says the whole experience has made her feel "powerless".
"I feel so drained due to the deeply saddened state I was left in on results day, from opening UCAS and finding out I hadn't been accepted into my firm to going into school and seeing that my grade had been bumped down," Olamide tells Refinery29. "I'm so disappointed in the government as I truly believe they couldn't have made a worse system than the one they used. The algorithm made no sense at all — it just reduced people's grade without clear logic, not only affecting whether or not people could go to uni, but also affecting students' mental health."
I'm so disappointed in the government as I truly believe they couldn't have made a worse system than the one they used.
Olamide Belewu, 18
She continues: "I have completely lost faith in the government and although they have done this U-turn, it is still too late for some and doesn't change a lot due to the fact that some teachers have not submitted grades that truly reflect students' capabilities. We have not been given the choice to appeal that."
Nour Tazaoui, 18, who grew up in Easton in Bristol, also feels let down. She had an offer from UCL to study medicine based on a result of A*AA but missed out on her place because the grades her teachers gave her were AAA. Nour tells Refinery29 that now she has to resit her biology exam in autumn and get an A* if she wants to enrol in 2021.
"I feel betrayed and disappointed. I was predicted A*s all year, got A/A* all year in biology and got a 9 at GCSE biology, A1 in my biology AS (highest grade) and was reassured by my teachers that the mock was a practice run." She says that during the mock exams she chose to focus on her family as she was working two jobs and had been rejected post-interview from Oxford University, all while her grandad was in hospital. She now feels that her teachers have taken her mock exam result and let it define her final grade.
This is yet another barrier to disadvantaged pupils like myself who attend state schools and are the first in their families to attend university.
Nour Tazaoui, 18
"This is yet another barrier to disadvantaged pupils like myself who attend state schools, live in POLAR1 areas [parts of the country with the lowest number of young people participating in higher education] and are the first in their families to attend university. I, unlike private school students, can't afford to pay for tutors. I now have seven weeks to learn all of biology A-level again, including the parts that my school never even got to.
"There needs to be a fair Ofqual appeals process for CAGs [centre assessed grades] otherwise countless students like me will lose their places due to unfair teacher marking. The whole point of exams is to avoid teacher bias and now the exact opposite has happened and allowed it to thrive."
Refinery29 contacted UCL for comment and a spokesperson said: "Due to the large numbers of students wanting to study here, we do not have any vacancies in UCAS clearing or adjustment, however we are accepting all students who meet the terms of their original offer on all programmes that do not have an externally determined cap (such as medicine).
"For those students who have met our offer to study medicine based on centre assessed grades but do not yet have a place confirmed, we are working with the relevant agencies about places this year and we will guarantee a deferred place for next year."