The Government's u-turn on the standardisation of centre assessed grades (CAGs) for this year's A-level and GCSE grading has marked a shift of emphasis to those who are unhappy with their grades based on their CAGs or awarded result, if higher.

Ofqual has since issued new and revised guidance to reflect the u-turn, including their Summary guidance on appeals, malpractice and maladministration complaints for GCSE, AS and A level grades in England published on 26 August 2020, which has answered some key questions.

Essentially, the arrangements for appeals and challenges have not changed in themselves, but what is clear is that schools are likely to receive a greater number of enquiries and complaints about CAGs, with appeal routes based on errors by awarding bodies being largely redundant now.

We have already received a number of enquiries from schools about how they should manage parent and pupil dissatisfaction with CAGs, and we feel it is helpful and timely to explore this again now.

Enquiries and Complaints About CAGs

If pupils and/or parents are unhappy with their CAGs, or have a question about them, they must generally raise these matters with the school in the first instance. This is likely to invoke one or more of five procedures, as follows:

  • Accuracy check - Schools must have a system in place to check and confirm to pupils upon request that no errors were made in determining or communicating their CAG to them.
  • Appeal request and review - Schools must have a system in place to consider a request for an appeal, to lodge an appeal where merited, and for the preliminary decision to be reviewed/appealed upon request if declined.
  • Complaints procedures - Schools remain bound to consider concerns and complaints raised by parents (and, in this instance, we would suggest you also include pupils, given the ages involved) under their published Complaints Policy. Given the nature of these complaints, we would advise that they are dealt with from the formal investigation stage (usually Stage 2) and, given that the Head of Centre (usually the Headteacher) will have signed off on the CAGs before they were submitted, this investigation should be undertaken by a Governor or (in a multi-academy trust) a member of the Trust's central executive team.
  • Malpractice procedures - Linked to the above, schools are obliged to report allegations, suspicions and findings of malpractice (including maladministration) to awarding bodies, and follow their instructions thereafter. Specifically, these duties are the Head of Centre's (again, usually the Headteacher) and, according to JCQ's guidance Suspected Malpractice Policies and Procedures (1 September 2019 to 31 August 2020), the report must be made immediately and in a prescribed form. The awarding body has the power to change a grade if malpractice is established.
  • Subject access requests - See below.

There will clearly be an overlap between these processes, but it will be important that these tasks are not conflated and the right person is allocated the role and carries it out appropriately. For example, where a member of the Senior Leadership Team is tasked with an accuracy check or the review of a decision not to appeal, it is important that they are able to recognise information provided by the parent/pupil which amounts to a complaint, and possibly alleged malpractice, and make an appropriate referral.

Appeal Grounds

Only one of the original three appeal grounds will apply to CAGs - the 'wrong data' ground. That ground is now limited to 'incorrect centre information' and it is worth noting the Ofqual guidance on this very narrow right of appeal, which says:

"It is particularly important this summer that awarding organisations are able promptly to distinguish between genuine errors, which might characteristically be administrative mistakes such as transposing digits or confusing Learners with similar names, and attempts to amend Centre Assessment Grades or rank order information by revisiting or revising the professional judgments which underpin them, which is not permitted."

How Else Can a Parent or Pupil Challenge the School?

If there aren't any grounds for an appeal, a pupil's CAG can only be changed following a finding of malpractice (including maladministration) against the school by the relevant awarding body. Such a finding is also likely to lead to sanctions for staff or the school itself.

The Ofqual guidance states that awarding bodies should treat evidence of any of the following as potential malpractice:

  • Bias
  • Discrimination
  • Any other factor suggesting the school did not act with due care or integrity.

Where these issues are raised directly or indirectly with the school, schools should bear in mind their obligations both to parents in respect of parental complaints, and schools' duties as examination centres to immediately report alleged or suspected malpractice to the relevant awarding body.

As in many cases allegations may be made in vague and/or speculative terms, and given the serious implications of a malpractice report, we recommend schools seek clarity from awarding bodies over whether and when a formal report should be made and, if not immediately, whether the awarding body is content for the school to deal with the matter though its published Complaints Policy.

Schools should note that failing to report alleged or suspected malpractice, and failing to follow instructions thereafter, is in itself malpractice.

Professional Judgments

There is a long history of legal precedent insulating professional judgments from challenge, and the exceptional arrangements have addressed this issue unequivocally. The professional judgments of schools and their staff in calculating grades remain protected through these arrangements. Unless there is a data error or malpractice, complaints lodged by parents and/or pupils can have no bearing on CAGs.

We would recommend that schools are cautious in how they approach parent or pupil queries or concerns, and that they do not invite challenges based on any difference of perspective. Parents and pupils are not better placed to make these professional judgments, and schools are obliged to stand by them in spite of any sense of disappointment or injustice which may be felt. Care should be taken to manage expectations from an early stage, and it is likely to be helpful in many cases to direct parents and pupils to Ofqual's Student guide to appeals, malpractice & maladministration complaints Summer 2020 - What to do if you have concerns or questions about your grades which explains in clear terms their limited rights of redress.

Schools should also remember that, even if one teacher would have determined a different CAG than a colleague based on the same evidence, unless that colleague has failed to act with due care or integrity, the CAG cannot be changed. Any attempt to do so could be viewed as malpractice because your Head of Centre has already certified the accuracy of the CAG submitted.

Subject Access Requests (SARs)

In respect of SARs, it is likely that these will continue to be used by pupils who are unhappy with their CAG and are looking to pursue an appeal and/or complaint. Our advice remains the same in relation to the release of this material, regardless of purpose:

  • SARs should be made by the pupil or with the pupil's explicit consent/agreement in most cases, unless specific circumstances affect the pupil's understanding of their rights.
  • SARs can be made orally, as well as in writing, so all staff dealing with pupils should know how to identify a SAR and the procedure to follow.
  • Much of the information held is likely to be disclosable, as limited exemptions will apply.
  • Rank is likely to be less important now, but will still have to be released if requested, unless release would identify other individuals and release would be unfair.
  • The usual one month time limit applies.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.