From the moment the Government decided that this year’s school exams would not take place, it had set itself a horribly complicated challenge fraught with political danger.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, it is difficult to see what the ‘right’ answer is. Trying to hand out grades based on cancelled exams is like trying to issue medals for a cancelled Olympics. No matter how clever the maths is, people are going to be unhappy.
Few people, if any, seem to have grasped in advance the scale of the problem. If anything, Gavin Williamson and his team have caught a lucky break in that the SNP administration in Edinburgh ran spectacularly aground on this same reef right in front of them.
Cue some frantic tacking, with ministers unveiling a(nother) ‘triple lock’, with pupils able to choose between their awarded grades, the results of their mock exams, or to sit the actual exams in the autumn.
On the face of it, this is an improvement on Nicola Sturgeon’s response, which was to spend the best part of a week defending the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s decision to adjust grades based on a school’s past performance (essentially dooming bright children from disadvantaged areas) before capitulating completely and simply accepting the implausibly rosy estimates offered by teachers in full.
But it’s far from perfect. There are allegations that the system used for estimating grades favours private schools, with their smaller cohorts. Then there’s the mind-boggling fact that because individual schools are being graded on a curve, a successful appeal against poor grades by one pupil has a knock-on effect on every other pupil at that school.
(It really is almost impossible to overstate how insane that last part is.)
The potential for political toxicity is enormous. At its worst, this story could become a sort of antimatter version of the usual blondes-jumping-for-joy stories that usually accompany results day. As the Scottish Nationalists have discovered, defending the overall integrity of the system creates lots of concrete losers whilst abstracting the gains – the ultimate losing formula.
And whereas the Scottish Government could at least bring a guillotine down on the issue by capitulating, the Prime Minister may not have such luck. Pupils are going to have to wait a week to even find out what the appeals process is – it hasn’t been designed yet – and it will be overseen not by a single qualifications body but by several exam boards. Then we potentially have to repeat the whole saga for GCSEs.
Given that these exams were cancelled months ago, it isn’t unfair to suggest (although acknowledging that nobody really seems to have grasped how big a problem this would be) that the Department for Education should have worked out a plan by now. When the dust finally settles, this will join the flailing effort to get schools open on the long, long list of failures of the state to be picked over post-pandemic.
But from where we are now, what can Williamson do? On the one hand, the current arrangements seem to hold so much potential political pain that some adjustments (or u-turns, as you prefer) seem likely.
Yet the Education Secretary has come out very hard against grade inflation, which would make it extremely difficult to copy Sturgeon and simply swallow predicted grades wholesale. Ofqual has claimed that without a standard benchmark different schools have been applying different standards, with a minority submitting ‘vastly inflated’ predictions. According to the regulator: “A rare few centres put in implausibly high judgments, including one which submitted all A* and A grades for students in two subjects, where previously there had been normal distribution.”
This is precisely what happened in Scotland, where SQA were responding to predicted grades which suggested a year-on-year improvement in Scottish school performance of 20 per cent. When Sturgeon said this wasn’t ‘credible’, she was correct.
There are more or less charitable interpretations for why predicted grades are so high. Sam Freeman suggests it is because “teachers’ are assessing their view of capability and exams assess actual performance”, so teachers are offering what they think is the upper bound of the grades their pupils will accept – a position which itself demands some form of moderation.
A more cynical view, which underpins the neglected cause of Conservative education reform, is that this is what usually happens when the ‘Blob’ is left to mark its own homework, which is why much of the education establishment is so bitterly opposed to such exams in the first place. For this reason, Ministers will likely be unmoved by those calling for the return of coursework and the AS Level, which might have provided a broader evidence base from which to respond to a once-in-several-generations pandemic but otherwise simply increase the year-on-year opportunities for educators to put their thumb on the scales.
Simultaneously doing right by individual school-leavers whilst defending the overall integrity of the results system proved beyond the wit of the Scottish Government. We’ll now find out if Westminster possesses the skill, or the will, to do any better.