The government’s U-turn over the marking of A-level and GCSE examinations in England, and abandonment of a disastrously flawed algorithm, will reduce the damage caused to young people and society as a whole by its dreadful decision-making. People across the UK understand how important education is to social mobility. The idea that this year’s exam results would reinforce existing patterns of inequality, while denying individual students the chance to realise their dreams, rightly provoked fury.
Relying on teacher assessment, while allowing those with higher moderated grades to keep them, is not a perfect solution and will attract criticism. It should be borne in mind that “centre assessment grades” are not decided solely by one teacher, but agreed in a process of in-school moderation. A government with more respect for teachers could have built on this model, for example by grouping schools in peer-review clusters. Alternatively, an algorithm could have highlighted outliers to be looked into by inspectors. But the flaws of the method chosen by Ofqual were glaring. That the UK government acknowledged them only when forced to by the scale of public outcry, and after similar decisions in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, is a serious blow to its credibility.
How the first set of rules was signed off is a question that must now be answered. Issues raised by the reliance on past performance should have been obvious to the people in charge of a schools system that supposedly values improvement. If you were looking for a definition of the odds being stacked against poorer pupils, the decision to let teachers grade pupils in the smaller classes typical of expensive private schools, but rare in big comprehensives, would serve pretty well. And while the many stories of near misses rightly carry huge poignancy, just as egregious is the fact that 4% of pupils were awarded an E – the lowest grade – in an exam they never had the chance to take, even in cases where their teachers thought they could do better; while 0.5% (one in 200 entries) was graded U (unclassified).
This disgraceful episode is far from over, with the spotlight now moving to universities. Due to the combined effects of coronavirus and Brexit, higher education was already in crisis. Weaker institutions may struggle to fill places now that the government has been forced, by its own incompetence, to remove a cap on student numbers that was meant to protect them. There are real concerns about students, who must now advance to the next stage of learning under the shadow of a virus that may prevent them from attending classes and making friends.
Monday’s apology from Ofqual was welcome but insufficient, particularly in light of the fact that the body refused offers of expert help. But gross political misjudgment, as well as official failure, is to blame for a policy shambles which goes wider than exams. Given the government’s track record of not following through on commitments, particularly in relation to digital access, there is every reason to feel anxious about the prospects for the new school year in September.
The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, was picked to replace Damian Hinds last year because he was a Boris Johnson loyalist. Had there been no pandemic, his limitations may have been more easily masked. The crisis of the past five months has exposed them brutally. But this isn’t simply a case of bad timing. Since Michael Gove left the post in 2014, four education secretaries have presided over a Tory policy that can only be described as incoherent, from Theresa May’s wrongheaded support for grammar schools, to Mr Johnson’s decision to ignore the Augar review, to the chaos unleashed on universities by Brexit. But if the story of recent years has been muddled, the past few months have been worse. Asked for adjectives to describe the current government’s record, an observant 17-year-old might try: unimaginative, dogmatic, inept.