When Michael Gove made toughening up exams part of his mission as Education Secretary, the teaching establishment wasn’t pleased. Far from offering a rigorous assessment of a pupil’s attainment, the argument ran, they distort the curriculum via ‘teaching to the test’ and fail to capture a candidate’s real abilities.
Following the Government’s lamentable but predictable capitulation over trying to generate reasonable results algorithmically last year, we have now had two years to see what the alternative is. And the answer: ‘rampant grade inflation’. From yesterday’s Times:
“Almost half of Tuesday’s A-level results are expected to be at A* or A in a second year of rampant grade inflation. The Times has learnt that about 19 per cent of the qualifications are likely to be graded A* this year and a further 30 per cent are expected to be given A grades. The results come after last year’s exams fiasco when 38.6 per cent of A-levels were graded A or A*, up from 25.5 per cent in 2019.”
Worse still, this may not even be the end of it, with the papers reporting that substituting teacher assessment for actual assessment could be back next year, as apparently two and a half years won’t be enough for the Department of Education to find a way to hold exams safely.
In the short term, this has led to university places being once again oversubscribed, with top-flight universities already restricting places available via the clearing system. There are also reports that they might start expanding the use of entrance exams, in order to differentiate between the mass of A-wielding applicants and try to reduce the need to provide remedial teaching to get students up to the level needed to start higher learning.
Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to let all the blame fall on the teachers. Debbie Hayton argues that it is impossible for them to foresee which pupils would have fluffed their exams on the day, although this has the effect of shifting the blame back onto exams as a system of assessment. One can also see how easily relying on predicted grades could produce a race to the bottom, with conscientious teachers not wanting to put their charges at a disadvantage relative to those of their more generous colleagues.
But there is no doubt that the ideological preferences of the education establishment are also at work. Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, told the Times that inflated grades will “become the new norm”, and is quoted as saying that: “The early signs are that it will be another bumper year for grades, justified as compensation for all the disruption suffered.”
Both Smithers and Hayton think this is a mistake: he suggests it amounts to “killing with kindness”, whilst she spells out how grade inflation rebounds on everyone:
“But what about the students who would have achieved straight A*s in any case? For better or for worse, exams are used to discriminate between students. There is already talk that leading universities will need to set their own entrance exams to do the job that A levels have failed to do… It’s not just the current 18 year-olds who have been let down. I sat A levels so long ago that my results are now a historical curiosity; I’m no longer judged against them. But those in the early stages of their careers will now be relying on grades that suddenly don’t look so impressive when compared to this year’s bumper results.”
Nor are the long-term results likely to be progressive. Whilst in the immediate prospect universities might use the glut of top grades to squeeze out better-off pupils, as Lord Lucas warned yesterday, such a trend will not survive sustained grade inflation. As and when universities are forced to use other criteria to sift candidates, be that entrance exams or the older methods of interview and extra-curricular achievement, the ball will be back in the wealthy’s court.
(That doesn’t mean that universities should be prohibited from setting entrance exams. Far from it: having the ultimate barometer of schools’ achievement set independently of the schools themselves might be the best structural reform for bringing grade inflation under control permanently. I have also written elsewhere that the Government might also consider introducing CV-blind entrance exams for public sector employment, in areas where a specific technical qualification is not required and degrees are simply being used as a first-stage sieve for candidates.)
Finally, it is worth pointing out that moving away from exams appears to have given fresh power to teachers’ prejudices about how the sexes learn, with the long-standing attainment gap between girls and boys, so recently closed, now wider than ever.
All of which is why this spike in grades deserves more than a dismissive “so what?”
But who is going to do anything about it? From being one of the boldest and most radical parts of government under the Coalition, today the Department for Education seems drained of all energy and authority. It has been rightly excoriated for its lack of pandemic contingency planning, and appears to have spent the last year doing nothing at all to try and prevent a second (and perhaps even a third) year of grade inflation.
It is no surprise that our survey finds party members giving Gavin Williamson truly stygian ratings, month after month after month. The best he could muster yesterday was to say that pupils “deserve to be rewarded” after a year of disruption. How many, in the long run, will actually thank him for this Weimar pay-rise? In a properly-functioning system, an unusually difficult year would lead, however sadly, to unusually low attainment. Not the opposite.
Education has never been Boris Johnson’s top priority. The 2019 manifesto was extremely light on proposals for schools, and he has not favoured the Department since taking office. But if the Government is serious about ‘levelling up’ or driving cultural change, let alone both, it has to take schools and universities much more seriously.