Short thoughts: teacher assessed grades - appeals

Article 16 June 2021 Experience

This is an exceptionally busy time for schools in the UK as they move full steam ahead with summer exams and teacher assessed grades. Teachers will currently be taking care to grade their students accurately in time for the 18 June deadline.

In that context, the appeals process which will run between August and October feels relatively far off. However, schools should be preparing themselves for complaints and appeals and understand what is expected of them in the circumstances. Despite the good intentions and the hard work of teachers and centre leaders, schools should expect some push back from disappointed students, and being prepared will help the things to run smoothly.

JCQ has now published A guide to appeals processes summer 2021 series which provides a helpful framework for how centres and awarding organisations will manage formal appeals.

However, it is important to understand that there is a distinction between ‘Appeals’ with, so to speak, a ‘capital A’ (i.e. using the formal JCQ process), and more informal ‘appeals’ from parents and students which either don’t meet, or have exhausted, the criteria for the more formal route. In these cases, we would expect centres to use their internal complaints procedure. This Short Thought will consider both types of appeal.

The JCQ appeals process

The formal JCQ appeals process applies to nearly all UK awarding bodies (international exam boards use a different system) and consists of a two stage process.

Stage 1: Centre reviews
If a student is dissatisfied with their grade, they can request a centre review on the grounds that the centre has:

  • failed to follow its procedures properly or consistently in arriving at that result; or
  • made an administrative error in relation to the result

As appeals on the grounds of academic judgement will not be made in stage 1, the burden on the centre at this stage is comparatively light. Here, the centre policy can be shared with the student (if this has not already been done) and if the JCQ pro-forma policy was used as the precedent, it will be very difficult a) for the student to challenge the policy itself (which will in any event have been pre-approved during the external quality assurance process) and b) to argue the centre did not follow the policy because it is so widely drawn. Of course there will be exceptions but our expectation is that most appeals will fail on these grounds.

Centres will also need to check no mistakes were made in the administration of the grades, such as an error inputting the results onto the system. These type of mistakes do happen and can be easily rectified once spotted. Hopefully most such errors will have been picked up during the quality assurance processes prior to results day and so in practice, very few will remain.

A possible scenario where appeals may be successful relates to special circumstances if a student believes the centre has not considered, for example, their access arrangements or made reasonable adjustments. A student may notify the school of the existence of mitigating circumstances which were not known about at the time of the assessment. In most cases, these types of issues would have been discussed and accounted for well in advance, but in a minority of cases where something arises which, for example, is entirely legitimate but was not known about at the time, then the centre will need to decide whether this affected the grade it submitted and, if this is the case, advise the awarding organisation accordingly.

A nuance of the appeals process which students should be made aware of is that as grades can be lowered as a result of an appeal, it is possible for a centre to discover that not only should the appellant’s grade be lowered but also those of others affected by the same policy who did not appeal. There is some scope to reflect on the impact on the affected student such that the benefit of correcting the incorrect result is outweighed by the adverse impact on the student. The example JCQ provides is where a borderline student is affected by a minor error which, if corrected, would result in a severe disadvantage for that student because they had relied on the original grade to take decisions about their progression. In that case, it may be right not to adjust their grade.

Whether or not a procedural or administrative failure was found during the centre review and whether or not a grade was changed, the student has the right to appeal to the awarding organisation in stage 2 of the process.

Stage 2: Awarding organisation appeal
Students may appeal a finding made in stage 1 (centre review) and where they consider there has been an unreasonable exercise in academic judgement (either because of the way the grade has been determined and/or the selection of the evidence) under the stage 2 process, which is made to the awarding organisation via the centre.

The Ofqual Guidance for the General Qualifications Alternative Awarding Framework sets out that an appeal is ‘not an investigation by the awarding organisation but an evaluation of the Learner’s result in light of the grounds of appeal’. In particular, in the case of an appeal over academic judgment, the awarding organisation will look at whether the Teacher Assessed Grade (‘TAG’) was unreasonable or not, rather than whether the student’s preferred grade would have been reasonable.

As TAGs are holistic in nature, and the independent reviewer will take a similarly holistic approach, there will not be a re-mark of individual assessments and a conclusion of unreasonable exercise of academic judgement would only be concluded upon where the TAG was clearly wrong – i.e. there was no basis upon which the grade could have been properly given.

An appeal is ‘not an investigation by the awarding organisation but an evaluation of the Learner’s result in light of the grounds of the appeal’.

We consider this to be a very high hurdle to overcome and anticipate that grades will be increased only in exceptional cases.

A student who is still dissatisfied following a stage 2 appeal may apply for a procedural review to the Exam Procedures Review Service (‘EPRS’). The EPRS review processes for Summer 2021 have yet to be published but should be available before results day.

A complaint masquerading as an appeal

The JCQ appeals process is reasonably straightforward and we anticipate that, in the most part, relatively few appeals will succeed either because the centre has prepared sufficiently through its communications with students, handling of TAGs and internal quality assurance processes, or because the threshold for changing a grade is so high (e.g. in the case of unreasonable academic judgement).

This will be welcome news to centres but is not necessarily the full story. Just because a formal appeal fails or the student cannot appeal because their complaint does not fit within the eligibility criteria, does not mean that all students will be satisfied, nor that the centre will avoid other more informal complaints.

For example, the parents of a student with a disappointing grade may complain that the school did not teach their child properly and that although the grade may be reasonable, their child had the potential to achieve a better result. Parents may compare the provision of other schools and complain that the centre was too harsh in its grading (effectively that the school was ‘too fair’). These types of complaint may be labelled as an appeal but would not fall within the eligibility criteria for the formal appeal system. Instead, the centre should use its normal complaints procedure and address the complaints on a case by case basis. We anticipate that this is where considerable work may arise for schools for although it may not result in changes to grades, there is no external system of appeal which helps to regulate parental expectations. Disputes of this nature can rumble on for months and, in a minority of cases, years.

While some students may be leaving after their A-Levels, others will be doing GCSEs or have younger siblings in the school meaning that it is important to try to preserve good relationships with parents where possible.

In these cases, it will be helpful to remind parents of the school complaints procedure and then follow the process carefully. In most cases, this will be sufficient to enable the parents to have their ‘case heard’ and to receive detailed feedback, for example, on what was offered to their child by way of educational support. These type of complaints may be time consuming where they arise, but hopefully can be resolved informally or through a panel hearing if escalated.

However, there will be some more serious cases where either a parent or student takes legal action (e.g. brings a claim for negligence or discrimination) or contacts the media. These cases will, of course, turn on the facts, but at this point, specialist legal advice should be sought in order to assess the merits of any claim, communicate with the parent’s legal advisors and, where necessary, prepare damage limitation statements to the media.

Withers has specialist education, charities and litigation teams which can support you with any concerns you may have as a result of the Summer 2021 TAGs. Please do get in contact if you have any questions.

Timeline

  • 26 May to 18 June: Window for Teacher Assessed Grades submission opens via awarding organisations’ respective portals
  • 18 June to 16 July: Awarding organisations conduct sample checks of evidence (* in exceptional circumstances, sample checks may take place until 23rd July)
  • 10 August: A/AS Levels and relevant other Level 3 results day
  • 12 August: GCSE and relevant other Level 2 results day
  • 10 August to 7 September: priority appeals window » 10 August to 16 August: student requests centre review » 10 August to 20 August: centre conducts centre review » 11 August to 23 August: centre submits appeal to awarding organisation
  • 10 August to end October: majority of non-priority appeals take place » 10 August to 3 September: student requests centre review » 10 August to 10 September: centre conducts centre review » 11 August to 17 September: centre submits appeal to awarding organisation