The Best of Times, the Worst of Times…

After a year unlike any other, on Thursday morning we ran our annual A level results day which, similarly, was unlike anything that has preceded it. The results spreadsheet was impressive, with the superb grades we expect from our students, but, as is the case for most schools, the excitement and desire to proclaim it from the rooftops has been tempered by the sobering context.

Social distancing has made results day a relatively quiet affair, but none-the-less upbeat and celebratory. I am delighted for our students, and proud of what they have achieved: at AKS, nearly 55% of the A level grades were A* or A, with 75% of grades in the A*-B range, and close to 95% able to accept their first choice university offers. I believe that these are the right outcomes – like teachers across the country, my colleagues worked hard and with integrity to deliver honest grades for submission to Ofqual – but there will inevitably be a lingering thought that we are not comparing like with like, and it has not been such a great day for everyone.

I recognise all too keenly that that many people across the country are experiencing incredibly difficult and disappointing days because the algorithms have not played to their favour. I am also profoundly saddened for students everywhere whose achievements may be disbelieved or devalued, and whose well-deserved grades will forever be felt to have a notional asterisk above them. For me, the long-lasting outcomes are far more important than the immediacy of the certificates, and I hope that this sting in the tail on what should be a positive period shall pass before too long, as they move onto the next stages of their lives.

Every profession, every community, every individual has been profoundly challenged by the global circumstances. Education has, inevitably, been in the spotlight, and the potential generational impact is worrying both on the collective and individual level. It has come to a head at this point. The algorithms used by Ofqual, the details of which are not yet widely known, have made use of prior performance to identify likely grades. The outcome for schools, like AKS, who have a strong historical record of sustained and consistent academic excellence is that they will have had fewer deviations from centre assessed grades than other institutions without such a strong track record. Regrettably, this has generated suspicion and accusations of privilege, in spite of the blindness of the algorithm to the type of school it is looking at. Nevertheless, we should not dismiss concerns with published grades, even in the absence of significantly better options.

This is by no means a shift defined exclusively by sector, as seen by those high-performing state schools and academies that have also done well, including across the United Learning group, to which AKS belongs. The problem is that no algorithm can properly reproduce what would have happened on the day. It could never be perfect, and no-one should be asserting that it is.

However, we can and should debate the merits of an examination system that puts everyone in a room with a pen at the end of two years – that, too, can generate imbalances in other ways – but we all entered the programmes knowing the rules of engagement, and they were swept away. At AKS, we are fortunate to have brilliant, hard-working students, with great teachers and dedicated parents supporting them.

In commenting upon the lay of the land today, I fully understand the difficulties that have faced teachers, students, parents, schools and indeed, the statisticians at Ofqual and the examination boards. There was never going to be a flawless outcome. Let us nevertheless celebrate what has been achieved, support those who find themselves disappointed, and not let the problems of this week divide an education sector whose commonality of purpose should be clear. Corrosion and conflict is a distraction from all of us striving to address our common challenges. Our shared difficulties should not be used as a weapon to make a political point.

In the worst of times, I have seen the very best of people. In facing up to the difficulties and perceived inequities of this year’s results, I hope that this will provide the impetus to learn, to reform, and to make the world of education better for everyone.

D A Harrow