With GSCE and A-level results day looming into view, I recently had a rare opportunity to observe a tiger mother in full flow.
Within ten minutes of being introduced at a friend’s barbecue, she proudly outlined the military campaign she was just waging to make sure teachers at her 16-year-old son's school gave him the GSCE grades she felt he 'deserved'.
After all, due to pandemic school closures and the inequality that created, it’s no longer faceless monolithic exam boards who decide our children's grades.
For the second year in a row, it's their teachers who make that call - people who parents know by name and may have even met, once upon a time, at a face-to-face parent-teacher meeting.
Indeed, now that real people can be held accountable, the mother in question explained how she had not only grilled the head on the phone about how her child’s grades would be awarded. She had also flooded the inboxes of his department heads with timely reminders about her son's abilities.
Indeed, this year’s assessment season has been a period of relentless hard work, not only for pupils and staff – but also for parents who feel they must chip in by advocating on their child’s behalf.
And if they don’t get the results they were expecting, today's parents want to know why - and are even prepared to take legal action.
In May, six families launched a class action to challenge GSCE and A-level grades, amid anger that their youngsters got the ‘wrong’ marks, and had missed out on university and apprenticeship places as a result.
The legal move against the Department for Education and the exams regulator Ofqual came as 1,500 people had also joined a Facebook group for GCSE and A-level pupils who got lower results than expected.
And it looks like the same will be happening all over again this summer.
Even though GCSE and A-levels results day are still several weeks away, education law firms are already lining up to help aggrieved parents who believe their children have lost out due to teacher ‘bias’.
In some cases, the threat has already been more explicit, according to former super-head and education expert Leon Hady of Guide Tuition.
“One private school head contacted me to say a parent had written that if their child didn’t get the set of A-levels they were expecting, they’d like the £78,000 they’d spent on his education at that school refunded.”
This wasn't sarcasm. It was a direct expectation. “They were saying: ‘We’re paying you for these grades. Make sure you give us what we want.’”
Whereas before parents would have sought to tip the scales in their child’s favour by hiring the best tutors so they performed better in written exams, now these have been scrapped, they are seeking to “exert control in more direct ways”, adds Hady.
This also includes leaning on staff in charge of extracurricular activities.
"I have heard a parent suggest to a judo teacher that they make their child team captain because it would look better for him on his UCAS form.”
However, it's parents’ belief that it’s no longer a fair system which is also driving them to distraction, other experts say. Pre-pandemic, whatever the inequalities in the system and exam board, children were tested on roughly the same material. However, with exams scrapped for the second year running, schools are using different criteria to make their decisions.
While some pupils have been graded mainly on mock exams, close to the real thing, others are being judged on less demanding tests on smaller parts of the curriculum.
Educational consultant Emma White has an overview of the system as founder of Mark My Papers (markmypapers.com), an agency which provides official examiners to check the progress of students’ work.
White, who is based in Cheshire, also has a son Ossie, 18, who home-schooled himself during the pandemic and is relying on two A stars and one A to get a place at Christ’s College, Cambridge to study History and Modern Languages, making his future feel dependent on asterisks.
White says: “The whole debacle smacks of unfairness. The sad thing is the variety in content that has been examined and the different processes schools have followed.
“For example, Ossie did full papers on all his content though a local tutorial college who accepted private candidates for grading.
“But I know other pupils were examined on a much smaller proportion of the content. So if a child who has completed their course loses a university place, to another child who gets a better grade because they were tested on elements of it, is that comparable or fair?”
Secondary school teacher Abigail Chadd, who is also director of nationwide tutoring company A Level Revision UK, agrees that parents are intervening more because this year’s results are, once again, not being seen as a level playing field.
And she says it’s parents with children who need top grades to get places on medical and vet degrees who are feeling the most anxious - because one misplaced grade can lead to the end of a career dream.
But Chadd says it’s wrong to see involved parents simply as pushy.
“Parents are engaging more, not necessarily because they want to get their child into Oxbridge.
“I think they are intervening because they want to relieve their child’s anxiety over what their grades will be.”
But of course, perhaps the truest test of whether parents and pupils are really unhappy with teacher-decided grades, is surely whether they opt to take externally assessed re-sits in October. So far it's mainly would-be vets and medics taking up this option.
Even if they did not get exactly what they wanted, Chadd says many pupils relax as soon as they get onto a university course, even if all did not go precisely as planned at A-level.
“Essentially, A-levels are just stepping stones,” she says. “So once they get onto a course they want at university, many young people take the view of: ‘Why worry about A levels any more when I am where I need to be?’”
But beyond all this, Chadd says it helps to remember that universities are more likely to be forgiving of a grade slip in these disrupted times – and that a fall in international students may help relieve the competition for places.
Chadd says: “I’d also like to think this year that universities will also take a more holistic approach than just looking at students’ grades and look more at personal statements.”
And looking to the future, she believes most employers will take into account the fact that these last two years have been the toughest in education in living memory.
“I think the real question won't be how well did these pupils do in the pandemic, but what did they do after that?”