It is a week and a day since our newslinks led with a Daily Mail story which we headlined “Government “rips up exam system to give pupils ‘triple lock’ on grades”. That’s a day after Nicola Sturgeon’s apology for the debacle in Scotland. Gavin Williamson was dashing to find an escape route for England. We all know what happened during the next six days.
At least two bad news stories will compete today, as GCSE results are issued later this morning. They pull in opposite directions.
One is bad for the system and good for pupils – in the very short term, at least. There will be high grade inflation. About a third of papers will apparently get top grades, rather than the usual fifth.
But even in the short-term, there will be consequences: namely, a Russell Group University-style rush of pupils into the better sixth forms, which will have knock-on effects further down the chain. There is talk of aptitude tests to weed out some pupils who have made a sixth form only because of the inflation.
The other is bad for system and bad for pupils. Some are about to find they’ve received lower grades than in their last set of predicted papers at school.
Why? Because teachers in schools will have feared that if they were too permissive with the “centre assessed grades” that they sent to the examiners, their pupils would be marked down in consequence. So they will have tried to game the system by sending lower CAGs than those last predicated grades.
That those CAGs might become the final measure of their pupils’ performance would never have occured to them. Furthermore, 500,000 BTEC students now won’t get their results on time.
Pearson, the exam board, first said that it would not be recalibrating the results…before saying that it will recalibrate them. Which means that they can’t be issued this morning. Williamson is under further fire for overlooking these students, the very type that the Government wants to “level up”.
This is unfair, but it is now open season on the Education Secretary, as it will continue to be until he resigns, is moved – or is sacked.
The Times opens up a new front this morning by reporting that Williamson was warned by a former Director-General of his department about the algorithm’s failings. A contrast is drawn between this briefing and the Education Secretary’s claim that he only became aware of the full scale of the problem last weekend.
In Williamson’s defence, it must be said that an advance warning of a problem, from no matter how distinguished a figure, isn’t quite the same as experiencing the problem itself.
But few will feel like being fair to the Education Secretary – to whom the fatal lobby cliches “embattled” and “beleaguered” will soon be applied, if they haven’t been already. He must now grapple with no fewer than four sets of policy and polical problems.
First, with the consequences of today’s results for sixth forms and further education colleges. Second, with those of his decision on A-levels for universities and other higher education institutions.
Third, with seeking to follow through the Government’s manifesto commitments on the Augar Review in these chaotic circumstances. Finally, he must try to lead the re-opening of schools in less than a fortnight. We could write for a third day running that Williamson should be moved, but we rest our case.
Some say that the exams fiasco won’t affect the Conservative poll ratings. For evidence, they may point to today’s YouGov poll, which sees the Tory vote holding up, despite the Party’s lead being cut to two per cent.
The rise in Labour’s standing comes largely at the Liberal Democrats’ expense, while the Conservatives have a 24 point lead among the over-65s, who are not touched directly by the exam turbulence.
However, another view is that the Government’s reputation on competence, already damaged by parts of its handling of the Coronavirus, will slide further by the time of next year’s local elections. We hope not have to lead our newslinks with another episode of the results-and-schools-and-universities story in a week and a day’s time, but wouldn’t bet on it. Feel for the students and pupils who have to cope with it all as best they can.