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.