Did anyone sleep on Wednesday night? Not only had the gates of hell swung open to unleash unearthly heat in our bedrooms, but the impending doom of A-Level results day raised more questions than would have been asked in any normal exam paper. Relying on what was claimed to be a robust, three-prong mechanism designed to be fair to ‘every child’ always felt like it was as risky as swimming with malnourished sharks. Given what we now know, most of us would have preferred the shark-infested waters.
Whilst the government heralds its 2.5 per cent rise in A* and A grades, it’s been conspicuously silent about where those gains have been made. Grades above Cs rose by 4.7 per cent in independent schools, compared to a measly 0.3 per cent in specialist sixth forms. The spike in the highest grades in private schools shouldn’t come as a surprise. The standardisation model was quietly bumped aside in small cohorts characteristic of Eton, which saw no grades altered whatsoever, but prohibited in state schools over cost restraints.
Mass downgrades, anyone?
After surrendering to Scotland’s student battalions, an embattled John Swinney looked to have set a course for the rest of the UK to follow: apologise, U-turn, celebrate students’ success and forget an algorithm ever existed.
Despite a reduction to 39.1 per cent of A-Level calculated assessment grades, there’s no need to worry at all. Because, as the Department for Education explained, those downgrades weren’t actually downgrades at all — they were simply ‘standardisations’. Or, give a better example, if Gavin Williamson was to lose his treasured role as Secretary of State and return to the backbenches, he would not have been demoted. Rather, he would have been ‘standardised’ on the Government’s abhorrent prior performance and Williamson’s own hopelessly over-optimistic predictions for just how useful his pet algorithm actually is.
To rub salt into 300,000 wounded grades, Ofqual — the travelling circus that’s spent the last four months impersonating an exam regulator — pulled the plug on the teachers they allegedly trusted by calling their predictions ‘implausibly high’. Not to be outdone as it bids to go higher up the rank order for most useless government organisation, the Department for Education pushed out a painfully self-aggrandising blog to rubbish ‘misleading claims’, including the ‘claim’ that the appeals process had been made clear despite the admission (in the very next sentence) that ‘further details’ of the 11th hour appeals shift had not yet been published.
Over a month ago, I tried to press home our greatest fears. Crying students, broken teachers and a leadership that simply doesn’t care. This hapless attitude of ‘so whatism’ is best encapsulated by the performance artist known as Nick Gibb, who blundered onto national TV to tell students that 96 per cent of them would be within one grade of their predicted results. To Gibb, the 96 per cent quip was an inconsequential statement. After all, he doesn’t have a university place on the line, even if his government position should be.
Don’t politicise students’ futures … unless …
Is it just me, or does nobody yet realise what a massive long-term personal goal this is for the Conservatives? Despite this government seeming unaware of most things, surely some politicians must understand the concept of ageing: us students won’t stay 18 forever. By 2024, the consequences of last Thursday will have fully played out, and it won’t be a pretty sight for many, including the Conservative Party itself.
Enter a disproportionate reduction in the grades of disadvantaged and working-class teenagers — a kick in the teeth to those who threw out the Labour badge to ‘lend’ their votes to Brexit’s blonde figurehead. When we were told about the prospect of ‘levelling up’, did it really mean pulling grades down? After all, the idea of a national meritocracy was a concept the blue party continually perpetuated in its 2019 election campaign and yet it has crumbled under the first glimpses of realistic strain. What does it say about this so-called meritocracy when the disadvantaged, who propelled the Conservatives into office, are systemically held back?
Gavin Williamson himself should know this. Although never disadvantaged, he completed his A-Levels at a non-private Sixth Form. Can he not remember his own experience? His own results day? His own grades? If this had occurred in the far off times of 1994, there may not be a Gavin Williamson today. Whilst that unintentionally may be the best argument produced so far in favour of standardisation, it points to a larger issue that the expectations on students to perform almost equally to a dataset has caused unimaginable individual heartbreak to thousands.
For example, what would be wrong with allowing Saeed Zamehran, an unaccompanied refugee in care, to maintain his grades of ABB instead of his eventual ‘achievement’ of BCE? Here’s a crackpot theory, so get your tinfoil hats ready.
The fact that an independent and apolitical regulator, Ofqual, was left alone to dream up this flawed system has served as the roots of a poisoned chalice for the government. Had Gavin Williamson and Boris Johnson known the strength of the political recourse they were taking, there’s little doubt that the Cabinet would have put their party’s reputation first, ditched Ofqual’s system and gone on to hail Saeed as a success story of the British education system.
Yet instead we’ve hit the one obstacle that this government will avoid at any cost, even if it guarantees the futures of young people: simply admitting they were wrong. What has cost students this year is not that the Conservatives made a policy decision, but that they let someone else do it for them and underestimated the stain it would leave.
On a personal note …
It’s probably worth noting that I emerged from the wilderness of standardisation relatively unscathed. I didn’t lose anything consequential, but whilst others weep should I feel guilty that I tied down an unconditional offer in February? Does the assurance I try to give to others that they can still overcome hardship to succeed feel hollow, meaningless and empty?
Should I lay off appealing two downgrades that had no effect on me, as others may need the time and help of administrators more? Should I feel guilty for being happy at my results, smiling as others crumbled — seeing their university dreams and career paths slip agonisingly through their fingers in real-time? Should I be guilty that I succeeded, where others — even with the same predictions as me — might have failed?
We all know someone this has hit; one of my friends had all three of her grades pulled down and the welcoming rug of her dream university hauled out from underneath her. She’s one of the brightest, most articulate and hardworking people I know and possesses a genuine and authentic passion for her chosen course, yet feels as if she’s second best. And for what? The government’s rhetoric around ‘grade inflation’ has made a 12 per cent increase in grades feel akin to the threat of a terrorist cell, global pandemic (no chance) or nuclear disaster.
On the other side of the ‘new normal’, graduates our age right now will be pivotal to rebuilding what’s left of post-pandemic Britain. How many of those aspiring doctors, medics and immunologists, in whom we pour our hopes of an eventual vaccine, will have had their future path irrevocably changed by this? To quote a flippant Ofqual from the final page of their 319 page debrief: ‘We will never know’.
I’ll level with you, the reason there’s so many questions in this article is because nobody has the answers. We don’t know about appeals, we don’t know about resit fees, we don’t know if this system will even hold up beyond this week’s GCSE results. But for every student reading this with a broken dream or even survivor’s guilt, there’s one question to which the answer is clear: ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?