High-achieving students failing their whole qualification, almost half failing to achieve a pass – read journalism lecturer Nick Reinis-Keightley’s insider account of BTEC results day.

This time of year is usually my favourite of the academic calendar. Sharing success stories, assisting students with their progression and celebrating all of the incredible work put in by staff and students alike. This year, the days either side of results day have been some of the toughest of my eight-years as a lecturer in FE.

I first knew something was horribly wrong at 6am last Wednesday, the day BTEC results were released to centres – the day before they would be seen by students.

One of our highest performing students on a level three programme had been given an UNCLASSIFIED grade for an exam – referred to as an external assessment – and thus had failed their whole qualification.

A few minutes later, I’d found out that 13 out of our 29 second-year students had achieved a Near Pass grade – that’s lower than a Pass grade, but they would still achieve their whole qualification and be able to progress.

Nearly half of our students had been deemed by a convoluted calculation to have not been good enough to achieve a Pass grade. To put that into context, never in two previous years had more than 15 per cent of our students achieved either a U or a near pass in the very same exam. More than half usually achieve a merit or a distinction.

Two further students who were ranked within the same cohort, but who sat a different exam, achieved lower than anticipated grades. I couldn’t believe it; how could this happen? Quite rightly, due to the sheer volume of errors, A-Levels have grabbed the headlines, but we’ve been promised that this year’s BTEC results have been largely unaffected in exams fiasco – again, BTECs have been forgotten.

The student given the fail grade would eventually be given a grade – you guessed it, a near pass – on Monday morning, with an apology from the awarding body, Pearson, regarding the error. No reason was given, but additional quality assurance checks had been run, therefore creating the delay in getting the grade amended.

Thankfully, their university place was unaffected, but this has still created anxiety, stress and confusion at a time when we really should be considering the welfare of all of those around us.

Several other students have contacted me to ask why they have achieved such a low grade. They have worked exceptionally hard for their other grades and staff at colleges like ours spent hours deliberating over centre assessed grades (CAGs) for internal units and ensuring that our paperwork was completed on time.

It’s heartening to read that BTEC results will now be investigated after it was initially suggested that they wouldn’t. I’ve seen that some 5,000 students may have their results upgraded – that’s not a small amount of students.

But, what concerns me is how this happened in the first place. BTEC teachers were not given the chance to give CAGs for the exam units; they would be decided based on five data sets – centre achievement data, overall unit performance data, centre rank orders, banked unit grades and the standardised internal assessment grades (our CAGs).

Without revealing any further personal data on our students’ performance, it’s clear that an error has been made within this particular calculation for the external assessment grades.

I have every sympathy for awarding organisations and Ofqual, who have been set an incredibly tough task in an entirely unique and challenging situation. But this over-standardised approach was likely doomed to fail from the start. Banked unit grades should (and could) have been given so much more weight when it came to external assessments – in our case, three of the four external units had been completed prior to lockdown and the vast majority of the internal units too, so instigating a form of individualised average per student wouldn’t have been a bad place to start. Or, maybe, this is just a genuine error in an algorithm.

Our appeal, submitted on the afternoon of Results Day, remains outstanding – statements on this matter seem to suggest that a “very small number of grades” were adjusted, so I hope that means our issue will be fixed long before the 42-day deadline.