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This year's teacher-assessed grades come with tight appeal deadlines.

A-level students who have missed out on their firm (or 'first') choice of university can submit 'priority' appeals – first-stage priority appeals should reach schools or colleges by 16 August 2021, with second-stage priority appeals needing to reach exam boards one week later by 23 August 2021.

In this article we take a look at how grades are determined, the measures in place for fairness and quality assurance, the multi-stage appeals process and how we can help you navigate the next steps.


With the 2020/21 academic year at a close – the second to be disrupted by lockdowns, social distancing and self-isolation – what can students, parents and schools expect from the imminent publication of GCSE, AS and A-level results?

Everyone on the front-line of education has been dealing with tough and unpredictable studying and working conditions.  All will be eagerly awaiting the publication of AS/A-level and GCSE results this week on 10 and 12 August, respectively.  With the ill-fated 2020 algorithm now consigned to the scrap heap, does the 2021 assessment criteria command confidence, provide fairness and allow students to move confidently to the next stage in their education, employment or training?

How are A-levels and GCSEs assessed this year?

Without standardised exams in 2021, AS/A-levels and GCSEs will be based on the grades submitted by schools and colleges (or 'centres') to exam boards (or 'awarding organisations').  Teachers' judgements need to be objective, fair and based on evidence.  The evidence to be taken into account is determined by each centre, and arrangements should have been made to explain to students the range and sources of evidence on which their grades would be based.

The relevant evidence for each student should focus only on what that student has been taught and can include coursework or other non-exam assessments, even if not fully completed.  Centres have been advised to aim for high quality evidence that clearly relates to the awarding organisations' specifications for each subject.  As far as possible, sources of evidence should be consistent across a cohort.  However, evidence also needs to be appropriate for both higher and lower ability students in some GCSE subjects – as such, different students in those subjects studying at the same centre may be assessed using different questions, tasks or 'mock' exams.  In any event, each centre must record its reasons for the evidence selected.

What about reasonable adjustments and extenuating circumstances?

Centres need to be continually mindful of their obligations under the Equality Act 2010.  Reasonable adjustments should have been made in respect of students' special education needs and/or disabilities.  Where reasonable adjustments were not in place at the time of the piece of work in question, this should be taken into account by teachers when coming to an overall judgement about a student's grade.  Input from the specialist educational needs coordinator (or 'SENCo'), as well as specialist teachers, should have been sought.

There may be other extenuating circumstances to take into account, such as a temporary illness or injury that affected a student at the time of the relevant piece of work.  Centres should also take this into account under the 'special consideration process', in accordance with the Joint Council for Qualifications ('JCQ') guidance.

What quality assurance measures are in place?

There are two levels of quality assurance measures in place – internal and external.  Each centre will carry out its own internal quality assurance checks.  These include:

  • Internally standardised marking and grading judgements
  • Considering this year's grades against those for all GCSE or all A-level subjects combined in 2017, 2018 or 2019, and recording reasons for any differences
  • Abiding by an internal sign-off process – each grade is signed-off by at least two teachers in the subject (one of whom should be the head of department, or the head of the centre where there is only one teacher in that subject)
  • Additional sign-off controls should be in place where there is a personal interest (for example: a teacher is related to a student)
  • The head of centre must confirm that the grades are a true representation of student performance and submit a declaration to the awarding organisation.

External quality assurance checks take place at exam-board level, which include:

  • Comparing centres' 2021 results against those produced in 2017, 2018 and 2019
  • Focussing assurance checks on centres whose results are out of line with previous years' grade (whether higher or lower)
  • Requesting and checking the evidence used to support grades from a sample of centres.

How will the appeal process work?

The appeals process is split into different stages and, as in previous years, an appeal may result in a grade going up, down or staying the same.

Firstly, any student may request a 'centre review' on the grounds that the centre:

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

Students are recommended to submit requests for review to centres by 16 August 2021 for 'priority appeals' (for those receiving A-level (or other Level 3 qualification) results who have missed out on their firm choice for higher education).  All other centre review requests must be submitted by 3 September 2021.

The key documents for a stage one appeal will include the centre's policy, sources of evidence used, details of any special circumstances considered and variations in the evidence based on disruption to the student's teaching.  Centres are expected to have provided this information to students on or before results day to allow each student to decide whether to request a review.  Further, centres are expected to have a clear process and appropriate resources in place to handle requests for reviews and to have communicated this process to students in advance of results day.

Stage two of the appeal process is an appeal to the awarding organisation.  The centre must submit this appeal on behalf of a student, as neither students nor parents/carers may appeal to the awarding organisation on their own.  In addition to administrative and procedural errors, the awarding organisation can look at appeals concerning an unreasonable exercise of academic judgement.  Awarding organisations must receive priority appeals by 23 August 2021 and all other appeals by 17 September 2021.

After the conclusion of the awarding organisation's appeal process, students may apply directly to the Examination Procedures Review Service (EPRS).  Centres, parents/carers may apply to EPRS with a student's agreement and on their behalf.  The EPRS looks into whether the awarding organisation followed its own procedures when processing results and/or handling the second stage of appeal.

How can we help?

Trowers & Hamlins LLP has extensive experience of resolving disputes in the education sector, acting for both individuals as well as public and private institutions.  We know the importance of engaging with students, schools, exam boards and the regulator, Ofqual, without delay in order to ensure as little disruption as possible to a student's progress to the next stage of their education.  Our in depth knowledge of both the private law and public law (including the Judicial Review process) aspects of educational disputes enables us to advise you comprehensively and strategically on how to approach any challenges to academic results this summer.  Our other relevant expertise includes regularly dealing with special and education needs and disabilities (SEND) matters and education, health and care (EHC) plans, as well as data protection law.