Explaining the Government’s ‘triple lock’ solution to school chaos

The question of what to do with A-level and GCSE students in a year when exams have been cancelled has been a tricky equation to solve.

The Government on Tuesday came up with an answer, but it still has not pleased everyone. Here is a closer look.

– What was the problem?

“School’s closed! No exams!”

It might have sounded like a dream for high school leavers – at first – when the decision was made to scrap the exams for A-levels and GCSEs that each year determine the grade students take into tertiary education or the workforce.

But then came the angst over how, in fact, they would acquire a grade.

– What was proposed?

Some argued for grades to be given by teacher estimates of what the student would have scored, based on performance before lockdown, including mock tests.

Some education authorities reacted with horror to that idea, saying it would necessitate widespread downgrading by exam boards, as teacher estimates were historically higher than ultimate results.

Others suggested exams could be taken later, after the virus crisis had sufficiently subsided.

Gavin Williamson
Gavin Williamson

– Problems with those ideas?

Apart from teacher estimates being less than accurate, the likely downgrades would almost certainly spark a flood of appeals from students, which would have to be dealt with in a hurry as the clock ticked toward the start of the university year next month.

Similarly, the idea of holding exams “later” did not really dovetail with the start of the tertiary year.

– Without a precedent, was there at least some sort of template?

Scotland was first out of the blocks with its solution. It took teacher estimates and moderated them, with 124,000 such results downgraded.

– How did that go?

Not well. Angry pupils and parents took to the streets, protesting that the downgrading process – which took into account schools’ past performances – would unfairly affect pupils from deprived backgrounds, or those who attended low-performing schools simply because of geography.

Thus, the Scottish Government was this week forced into a hasty backflip. Downgraded results would be scrapped, with teacher estimates back in, although any student whose grade happened to have been moderated upwards could still keep the higher result.

John Swinney
John Swinney

– What now for England, Wales and Northern Ireland?

Amid the swirling waters of the coronavirus mess, students will be allowed to claim the highest ground they can.

In what the Government calls a “triple lock” approach, pupils can go with their mock exam/teacher estimate result, the moderated grade that has already been decided from those (which will come out this Thursday), or they can choose to sit an exam in the autumn. Whichever mark is higher, they can take.

– That easy?

Not quite. Schools regulator Ofqual will still determine when valid mock results can be used. Students wanting such results to hold sway over moderated grades will still have to go through an appeal process, with their school required to submit evidence to the exam board. The Government’s decision, however, does appear to have created a climate in which students finishing school in this extraordinary year are well looked after.

– Is timing not still an issue, regarding university entrance?

Universities are being urged by the Government to keep places open for students who may be late arriving due to appeals or autumn exams. Ironically, this might not be a problem for once because of the very reason for this mess – the coronavirus – which is stopping the usual intake of many thousands of foreign students coming to Britain.

– Is the Government’s decision universally popular?

No. Students may be relieved, but others fear the plan means 2020 could be looked back upon as a year in which an entire school year across the UK graduated with a set of questionable, rubbery figures.

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, warns the move could cause a dark year for British education. He says the plan creates the risk of “massive inconsistency” from school to school, as mock exams are not standardised across the country. Furthermore, some students may not even have taken them before schools closed in March, leaving their fate to teacher prediction. Calling the triple-lock solution “a panicked and chaotic response”, Mr Barton said the idea that mock exam results could trump calculated grades “beggars belief”.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also criticised the plan and – even though results are released this Thursday – called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to change course or risk “robbing a generation of their future”.