August 2020. A-Level and GCSE results

Friday August 21st, 2020

Welcome to your update for August. I do hope you and your family are having chance to enjoy the summer break, despite the unusual circumstances and almost daily changes!

In this issue we’ll take another look at exam results and next steps; explore why UK independent schools feel fairly confident they can be Covid-safe; and consider Oxford University’s role as a front runner in the race to produce a vaccine (though they may have been pipped to the post by Russia!)

A Level results

You’ll have seen the press coverage and maybe experienced for yourself the confusion and contention surrounding Scottish highers and A Level results this month. Much of the concern stems from the recalibrating of individuals’ grades – arrived at through teacher assessment – to take into account a school’s past performance. The rationale was that without this recalibration, results would be significantly higher (and therefore not comparable) with those of previous years. The class of 2020 might benefit, but to the detriment of previous cohorts, whose achievements will always be considered alongside theirs in future assessments of suitability such as job applications. But more than a third (39%) of results were downgraded by Ofqual’s algorithm and unfortunately, in trying to make it fair, the recalibration put many members of the 2020 cohort at a disadvantage.

Students who’ve performed well may have had their marks downgraded by circumstances completely beyond their control and arguably unrelated to their achievements. In response, on 17th August, the Welsh Education Minister Kirsty Williams announced that the controversial algorithm will be scrapped and this year’s A Level and GCSE grades in Wales decided on the basis of teacher assessments only. A similar announcement from Education Secretary Gavin Williamson followed the same afternoon, confirming a government U-turn that means A Level results in England will not be subject to the algorithm and all students’ grades will revert to the centre assessment grades provided by their teachers.  Read more here:

If you – or your son or daughter – have any concerns or queries, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. In the meantime, here’s our summary of suggested next steps…

Next steps – your options

The Education Secretary has said students will be able to appeal their grades should they be lower than the grades they achieved in their mock exams. In most cases though, mock grades tend to be lower than actual results; partly because students haven’t completed the whole syllabus and still have several months of learning and honing their exam technique to go. And partly because it’s no secret that teachers use mock results as a means to spur students on to greater efforts and achievements!

If your actual A Level grade is lower than your mock results, then you can follow the steps outlined by Ofqual to appeal. However, at the time of writing, the process is still not completely clear. Keep an eye on for updates, but we appreciate these can sometimes be hard to navigate. Drop us a line or give us a call if we can help.

University applications

Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, wrote to all universities prior to results day, urging them to be as flexible as possible and to hold places for students involved in the appeals process. Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, is keen for all appeals to be completed by 7th September, but this deadline is unlikely to be met given that, as of 17th August, Ofqual’s guidance on appealing is still being finalised. The government wants to ensure that, wherever possible, students whose results are unexpectedly below their conditional offers are not penalised.

With this in mind, Ms Donelan added that any students for whom places are held will be exempt from the student number controls the government gave universities back in June, as part of its pandemic response. Since universities have announced their intention to offer lectures and larger tutorials remotely during the next academic year, the issue of numbers is presumably not as pressing now.

Although it will be interesting to see if more students than usual decide to defer their place in the hope that the 21/22 intake will have a more ‘normal’ university experience. Check out our July blog for more details about securing, confirming, deferring or switching a university place. Universities potentially oversubscribed include UCL, Southampton, Manchester and Sheffield – with York, Durham and Royal Holloway amongst those likely to have more places available through clearing. Do get in touch if you’d like to talk through your next steps, including the option to defer a place and take a gap year.

GCSE results day

A matter of days before they were due to be released, Ofqual confirmed that GCSE results in England would be based on teachers’ assessments, except in cases where the grades produced by the algorithm were higher. Overall, results day was a positive one – with the highest recorded grades since records began and more students passing their GCSEs than ever before. But we know that for some pupils, grades may not have been what were hoped for. If you have questions or concerns about GCSEs, do get in touch. We can guide you through the appeals process or discuss the other options available to you.
Exams this autumn

As we mentioned in last month’s blog, students will also have the option to sit exams this autumn. Exact dates are yet to be confirmed but A Level exams are likely to be between 5th and 23rd October; GCSEs from 2nd to 23rd November. There’s no obligation to sit an exam – and Ofqual has confirmed that students can retain their highest grade (i.e. their calculated grade, their grade arrived at through appeal or their exam grade).

Refer back to July’s blog for more details on applications, deferrals, clearing and switching courses. Or get in touch with us for a no-obligation chat.

Getting back to school in September

Every school across the UK – state schools, academies, public, private or independent – is working hard to make the return to school as safe as possible for pupils, staff and parents. Your school will have its own rules in place for preventing the spread of Covid-19 and many will have adopted the Boarding Schools’ Association Covid-safe Charter (see our June blog), confirming they are fully compliant with UK government guidelines.

It’s worth a note of reassurance here: whilst independent schools will follow government advice, they do have more flexibility to make their own decisions and create their own processes than their state-run counterparts. In addition, they tend to have the resources – in terms of space, funds, teachers and skill sets – to be more responsive and autonomous. Thus, they could adapt more quickly and effectively to an online syllabus; and they are well set up to create one-way systems, year-group bubbles, etc.

Catering for international students also means they have to consider wider interactions and find safe solutions. As part of this, quarantine starts on 20-23 August for returning students. As discussed in our July blog, pupils will be expected to stay at schools or find alternative arrangements for two weeks of self-isolation if they’re arriving in the UK from a country that isn’t exempt. You can see travel advice as it changes and register for email updates here:

Planning ahead for autumn half term, pupils who wish to go home to a country that’s not on the exempt list would need to quarantine again on their return to school. The exempt list is changing all the time and schools are encouraging pupils not to go home this autumn but to stay in school, offering accommodation for the holiday period.

Covid-19 immunity: the role played by the common cold and Oxford University’s part in developing a vaccine

The route to immunity is long and complicated, but the process of finding a vaccine for Covid-19 has certainly been much faster than for many of its predecessors.

Russia’s announcement that they have approved a vaccine, known as Sputnik V, makes them the first country to approve a potentially preventative treatment for the virus. But the news has triggered debate about whether the development was rushed through.

Elsewhere in the world, five vaccine candidates are at phase 3 of clinical trials, one of which is the partnership between Oxford University and AstraZeneca. What I like about this partnership is that the key players have committed to work on a not-for-profit basis during the pandemic, and with a particular focus on making the vaccine accessible for low and medium income countries. It’s good to see such philanthropy at a time that’s tough for everyone. You can read about the other front runners here: – in a report clearly compiled before Russia’s surprise announcement!

In phases 1 and 2 of Oxford University’s trials, the vaccine triggered two immune responses: an increase in antibodies and a T-cell response. The antibodies prevent healthy cells from infection, and the T-cells kill cells that have already become infected. Scientists say this two-pronged response is ideal, but there is still some way to go.

Interestingly, the way our immune systems respond to the common cold and other viruses appears to replicate this dual-pronged approach and may be helpful to creating immunity to the novel coronavirus, Covid-19. Although antibodies might not remain in our systems beyond a period of a few months, the immune system essentially trains T cells to recognise infected cells and these T cells do remain. In cases of SARS (2003, also a form of coronavirus) ‘trained’ T cells were detected 17 years after people had recovered from infection. If I’ve understood the science correctly, since the common cold is also caused by strains of the coronavirus, previous exposure to it could provide a third way to develop Covid-19 immunity (as opposed to catching the disease itself or receiving a vaccine to protect against it). Check out the science for yourself at: – it’s a really interesting read.

If you prefer to digest your science aurally then there’s an interesting episode of Science Hour from the BBC World Service here: that discusses the challenge of upscaling from clinical trials in the thousands to global vaccinations for billions. (In the same instalment you can also learn lots about soap, as well as mosquitoes and even a spot of astronomy and evolution!)

I hope you can enjoy the rest of the summer break and here’s to a new start in September!