Leona O'Neill: A-level students deserved better than a computer assisted grading fiasco

Turmoil over predicted A-level results caused stress and worry to many students and their families this past week. Leona O’Neill argues that our teens deserved a fairer deal after already having had their lives turned upside down by the pandemic

Teens in England took to the streets last week to protest computer algorithm-adjusted A-level results
Teens in England took to the streets last week to protest computer algorithm-adjusted A-level results Teens in England took to the streets last week to protest computer algorithm-adjusted A-level results

LAST week was a really tough one for our A-Level students. After having their exams cancelled by a worldwide global pandemic, they received the predicted grades that will determine the rest of their educational journey, and many of them were short of the marks they needed to progress to where they wanted to go.

More than 28,000 pupils opened possibly the most anticipated postal delivery in their lives thus far last Thursday morning.

Many of them found that more than a third of estimated grades allocated by their teachers were lowered in the final results.

When the exams – usually prepared for all year and held in May and June – were cancelled, examining board CCEA asked teachers to give a predicted grade instead and then rank them in order within their class. Teachers worked hard for weeks to grade their pupils. CCEA used these grades and other data to standardise the results. The chief executive of the examination body later told the BBC if teacher judgment had been used on its own, results would have risen “considerably”.

On Thursday, social media exploded as heartbroken teens, who were depending on grades to get into their chosen courses to stay on their career trajectories, took to their platforms to speak of their devastation. In their eyes their futures seemed to be decided by a computer algorithm and a lot of them were left in a tailspin due to lower than expected results.

Stressed parents spoke of their anguish and hit out at a system that seemed to ignore the input of teachers – who know individual’s performance better than any computer system ever could.

Some 37 per cent of estimated grades were lowered; 5.3 per cent were raised. That is an awful lot of career paths knocked off course.

Our young people have sacrificed so much over the last five months. Their education has been completely derailed and they have tried their best to learn from home while the world outside their window changed completely, becoming more frightening.

They have gone from socialising with their friends and being free to roam wherever they want to being prisoners in their own homes for weeks on end during lock down.

They have been told that they are not at high risk of dying from Coronavirus, but they have acted responsibly to save the lives of those who are vulnerable around them. And this is how we repaid that sacrifice.

For those students who wished to apply for certain courses at university and have dreams and ambitions connected to these courses, a lower than predicted grade will have completely derailed their plans.

Many of them were left confused about where next to go, what next to do and were understandably angry and frustrated at the cards they have been dealt.

Many of our young people have struggled enormously with their mental health in lock down. That is only natural in these surreal times. This most recent setback, on top of everything else they have had to contend with, has not been an easy punch to roll with.

With the GCSE grades to follow this week, I’m glad that the education system and all who feed into it finally sorted this mess out.

Coronavirus has had a huge impact on the entire world, crushing economies, devastating communities, bringing global health services to their knees. We had little control over its spread and how it would affect all these aspects. But we did have control over how the virus impacted our children’s futures.

There was surely a fairer way to allocate grades, to save heartache, headaches and stress for pupils and parents and teachers.

Thankfully what was wrong, what turned the worlds of so many of our bright young teenagers upside down, has been corrected. And hopefully lessons have been learned.