When we wrote this morning that the least bad course, for this year’s GCSEs and the pupils who took them, was to let teacher-predicted results stand, we were confident that the Government would do precisely that.
It has been evident from the moment that Ofqual published A-level appeal advice on Sunday morning, and then withdrew it that very evening, that Conservative backbench opinion would change.
Tory MPs were divided on what to do about the algorithm-issued A-level results in principle, but began to unite about what the Government should do in practice.
If Ofqal was in chaos, they reasoned, Ministers weren’t in control – and had lost any grip on an emerging triple problem that they might once have had.
This treble hurdle was, first, A-level appeal chaos. Second, the GCSE results coming down the track later this week. And third, the urgent need for schools to open up in only a few weeks’ time.
It is true that by now empowering schools and pupils to pick the better of the algorithm or predicted results, Ministers and Ofqal may have set the scene for some sixth forms and colleges to wax and others to wane.
This is because there will be winners and losers from a settlement in which there are more pupils going on to do A-level than were expected, as will be the case now.
The weaker institutions stand to lose – unless the Treasury bales them out, as will doubtless be the case to some extent, especially if many of them are further education colleges, given Ministers’ focus on FE.
But this is one of the side-effects of taking that “least bad course”. In essence, what Ministers now done is to transfer an educational problem driven by the scrapping of exams from the Education Department to schools and colleges.
Like Russell Crowe’s Jack Audrey in Master and Commander, they have cut their ship loose from the wreckage that was threatening to sink it.
We thought that they wouldn’t do so with A-levels, because results have already been issued. We were wrong. The same political logic has been applied, despite the difficulties that this will now cause.
“Now I have students/parents in my DMs asking if they can give back the place at their 2nd choice uni and claim their place at their 1st choice,” Sam Freedman tweeted in the wake of today’s announcement.
Expect more of that, and then some. Obviously, Gavin Williamson, Boris Johnson and Nick Gibb will take flak in the coming days for it.
Nonetheless, our snap take is that, in crude terms, Ministers and Ofqual have picked up their problem and hospital-passed it to the universities and colleges.
There will now be hero institutions, such as Worcester College Oxford, that will accept all students with offers, regardless of their A-level results. Hooray.
And there will be villain ones, presumably to be denounced as “snobs”, who will show less compassion, or cunning, or both – and will stick to the script. Boo, hiss.
But the general effect of the move will be like that we may see in sixth forms and colleges, but more so. The cap on student numbers will go. Russell Group universities will hoover up better-qualified students.
Much will depend on overseas student numbers. But don’t be surprised if we see the outcome that the cap was put in place to avoid – namely, pressure on the weaker higher education institutions.
Again, Rishi Sunak will haul out the taxpayer cheque book. However, we can’t help wondering whether our old friend the law of unexpected consequences may apply.
Our columnist Neil O’Brien has made the case for a rebalancing of higher and further education. The Government sees this as part of its desire to “level up”. Could the exam results crisis turn out to trigger such a process?
Tomorrow, we will probe the question that the media, many voters, and MPs are inevitably asking: who’s to blame for this shambles? Ministers? Ofqual? Both?
In Master and Commander, it’s not just wreckage that is cut loose. One of the seamen, Wharley, drowns. Which politicians or quangocrats should now be dragged five fathoms deep?