Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
The cancellation of exams this year was bad news for all involved. It was unfair to those students who would have won high grades without an artificial boost. It was prejudicial to past and future cohorts. It was a nightmare for universities, which were presented with an administrative headache. It was a disaster for Ofqual, which failed to rise to its first serious challenge. And, of course, it was calamitous for Gavin Williamson, who got the blame.
Whether that blame was merited is beside the point (I argued on ConHome at the time that the exams débâcle was an example of ministers having “responsibility without power”, because voters blame them rather than the state agencies that they simultaneously demand be “free from political interference”). The fact is that we stumbled into a terrible situation, closing our schools despite children not normally contracting or passing on serious Covid symptoms, and then scrapping exams because it seemed the line of least resistance.
Now we know better. Yet – and I find my fingers trembling with incredulity as I type these words – we look like walking into the same mistake again, only this time without the excuse of having acted blindly. The Labour administration in Cardiff has cancelled GCSEs and A-levels for 2021. The SNP administration in Edinburgh has cancelled National 5 exams (which are very roughly equivalent to GCSEs) and says it will decide in February whether to go ahead with Highers.
In England, the stated position is still that all exams will go ahead, albeit a few weeks later to allow schools to make up for lost time. That line might yet hold. But it seems just as likely that, as has happened again and again during the epidemic, the devolved assemblies will push the Tories into a more extreme position than they want.
Various ideas are being floated that would allow Williamson to climb down while pretending to have kept his promise – some combination of exams and teacher assessment, for example, or full GCSEs going ahead only in core subjects such as English, maths and science. All these ideas should be resisted – for the sake of employers, the Conservative Party’s reputation and, above all, the students themselves.
It is notable that the strongest pressure for cancelling (or decaffeinating) public exams comes from people who were already against them before Covid. Progressive educationalists – what Michael Gove called the Blob – have always seen national exams as intolerably stressful.
It is true that exams can be stressful. It is true, too, that they can be blunt instruments. But no one has come up with a better way to gauge the abilities of students across the nation in a consistent way. Continuous assessment is not a uniform measure. Teachers would be, so to speak, marking their own homework (for once the metaphor seems apt).
We accept this logic for most other acquired skills. Music grades, a driving licence, a foreign language diploma – all require an externally invigilated exam. How could we not apply it to something as fundamental as the qualifications which will determine where students complete their education or what they say in their first job interview?
Of course, not everyone who is against holding exams next year wants them abolished forever. Some argue that it is simply unfair to go ahead given how many kids have had their educations disrupted – not just by the effective loss of much of last term, but by repeated interruptions in this one, as bubbles or even entire year-groups are sent home when a pupil tests positive.
That criticism begs the question. It surely cannot be right to send healthy children home because of a virus which poses next to no risk to young people. It would make more sense to withdraw potentially vulnerable members of staff and let children carry on as normal. We have not taken that route; but we can at least now offer priority vaccination to teachers and other staff who might be at risk, and let school life resume in full – plays, sports, no masks.
More seriously, though, who can doubt, in retrospect, that going ahead with this year’s exams would have given schools a much-needed sense of focus? We had plenty of space, and other countries managed.
Of all the things that 2020 has revealed, the most shocking is the vast distance between ambitious and unambitious schools. Good state schools (and most private schools) tried to run something close to a normal schedule, with online assemblies, music lessons, sports days, the works. Bad ones sent out desultory work sheets and, in some cases, refused to mark them. This was not a question of resources – a Zoom lesson costs nothing – but of motivation. By and large, the schools which were least willing to teach online last term have been the quickest to send kids home this term. And in many cases, the pupils being sent home are those who can least afford the disruption.
Cancelling exams, in other words, serves to widen the attainment gap. Some schools treat Covid as a challenge, others as an excuse. And, though there are good and honourable exceptions, the schools serving poorer communities are often in the second category. If exams are cancelled or curtailed, which schools are likeliest to take their foot off the accelerator? It won’t be Winchester or Westminster, will it?
I argued that this term should start in August, but that proved impossible because the interests of the producers were elevated above those of the consumers. We could, if lost time really is the objection to 2021’s exams going ahead, shorten the Easter holidays and pay teachers a bonus for the extra work. But, either way, we owe it to our teenagers to let them compete fairly for the qualifications that other year-groups acquired.
We keep saying that we will “put children first” but, so far during this lockdown, we have done nothing of the kind. They have suffered enough.