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Welsh First Minister Drakeford defends A-level grading system following U-turn

Moderation saw 42% of all predicted A-level grades lowered in Wales – angering students, teachers and unions.

Mark Drakeford
Mark Drakeford

First Minister Mark Drakeford has defended Wales’s controversial grading system for A-levels and GCSEs after the Welsh Government was forced into a U-turn.

Like elsewhere in the UK, Welsh pupils will now be awarded results on the basis of teacher assessments rather than an algorithm following an outcry from students, teachers, unions and politicians.

In Wales, 42% of A-level results predicted by teachers were lowered by Qualifications Wales, leading to claims that its algorithm, which took into account the past performances of schools, had unfairly downgraded some pupils.

On Monday, Mr Drakeford said he still believed Wales’s grading system had “integrity” and would have remained in place were it not for climbdowns by other UK administrations.

The First Minister told the PA news agency: “I believe our system had integrity, that it has independence and rigour in it.

“But once governments elsewhere in the United Kingdom decided to move away from that way of doing things and to rely on teacher assessments alone, young people in Wales would have been disadvantaged.

“We weren’t prepared for that to happen, and that’s why we’ve made the decision we’ve made today.”

Asked if he regretted the distress caused to pupils whose places at universities were jeopardised by being downgraded from their teachers’ predictions, he said: “I am sorry that young people in Wales have had to live through such a period of uncertainty.

“But I do want young people in Wales to know that everything we have done as a government has been designed to protect and promote their best interests.”

He added: “We’ve changed our system to make sure there’s a level playing field so that young people in Wales can compete with young people elsewhere from that fair basis.

“Making sure that the interests of young people are properly protected, properly promoted, has been the thing that has motivated this government throughout these last few days.”

Education Minister Kirsty Williams – the sole Liberal Democrat MS in the Welsh Labour-led government – confirmed that A-level, AS-level, GCSE, Skills Challenge Certificate and Welsh Baccalaureate grades in Wales will now be awarded on the basis of centre assessment grades.

Ms Williams said: “Working with Qualifications Wales and (exams board) WJEC, we have sought an approach which provides fairness and balances out differences in the standards applied to judgments in schools.

“Given decisions elsewhere, the balance of fairness now lies with awarding centre assessment grades to students, despite the strengths of the system in Wales.

“I am taking this decision now ahead of results being released this week, so that there is time for the necessary work to take place.

“For grades issued last week, I have decided that all awards in Wales will also be made on the basis of teacher assessment.

“For those young people for whom our system produced higher grades than those predicted by teachers, the higher grades will stand.

“Maintaining standards is not new for 2020, it is a feature of awarding qualifications every year in Wales, and across the UK.

“However, it is clear that maintaining confidence in our qualifications whilst being fair to students requires this difficult decision.

“These have been exceptional circumstances, and in due course I will be making a further statement on an independent review of events following the cancellation of this year’s exams.

“Other awarding bodies across the UK are involved in determining the approach to vocational qualifications. This continues to be the case but it is important that I give assurance to GCSE, AS and A-level students at the earliest opportunity.”

Hundreds of people gathered outside the Senedd over the weekend to protest over the grading system, while Plaid Cymru said it was discussing launching legal action against Wales’s exams watchdog.

Reacting to the news on Monday, Plaid Cymru’s shadow education minister Sian Gwenllian said: “The real victory belongs to the young people of Wales, who have demonstrated better leadership and decorum than their government.

“Whilst it is regretful that this U-turn didn’t come last week instead of putting students through so much unnecessary uncertainty and anxiety, I offer my congratulations to the young people who have led this campaign so ably.

“There should be a full investigation into this debacle and the Welsh Government should apologise to students, teachers and schools for what they’ve put them through over the past few weeks.

“Never again should the professionalism and integrity of our teachers and the hard work of our students be called into question. For today, let us celebrate that justice has prevailed.”

Eithne Hughes, director of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) Cymru, said: “We welcome the government’s decision to put an end to the grading fiasco by allowing students to receive teacher-assessed grades rather than grades which have been moderated down.

“Students, parents and teachers will breathe a sigh of relief after days of confusion and palpable upset at the anomalies thrown up by an algorithm in which the individual learner was lost.

“This decision will, of course, mean that there is grade inflation this year, but that is a small price to pay for remedying the manifest injustices produced by the statistical model used to moderate grades.”

Suzy Davies, the Welsh Conservatives’ shadow education minister, said: “This has been an exceptional time, and this news will come as a very welcome relief for the thousands of A-level students who last week were looking at grades lower than they were predicted to receive.

“It will also be a relief to pupils expecting results this week, as well as an acknowledgement of quite how much effort teachers put into this.”

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