UK

Johnson promised to “level up” the UK, but this year’s A-Level fiasco proved he has no idea

OPINION

Following the election in December 2019, Boris Johnson has repeatedly promised to “level up” the country, by eradicating national inequalities and giving every child equal opportunities. This is an ambitious statement from an Etonian and Oxford graduate. Johnson experienced arguably the best education that the UK has to offer, and while the idea is long overdue and vital to socio-economic equality across the UK, it is difficult to believe that Johnson and his government fully understand the scale and complexity of educational inequality across the UK.  

Every child deserves the right to a high-quality education but, unfortunately for the government, results day 2020 proved to be the antithesis to their aim. The release of Ofqual’s moderation policy was the early herald of the mess which was to follow. Despite teachers having put in hours and hours of their time in assessing their students, setting predicted grades and even ranking them individually, this year’s fiasco showed clearly that educators are not granted the trust and respect their expertise deserves by Ofqual or the government. Instead, trust was placed in a computer algorithm to determine whether students could look ahead to a bright future, or had their dreams crushed by the simple application of a few formulae.

Centre-assessed grades were placed into a computer, which then adjusted grades automatically based on a school’s history of exam results, the ranking which teachers had given their students and a student’s own past results. The idea of ranking students is in itself disturbing – teachers had to determine the exact order of achievement in which they should place students, even those of identical or similar abilities. Joint positions were not allowed, even if students had previously received the exact same results in mock assessments. However, seemingly, a significant weighting was given to the school’s prior performance. This led to the process effectively calculating how many of a certain grade a school or college was allowed to have, before changing the remaining students’ grades accordingly, mostly for the worse.

These cold calculations are impersonal and ruthlessly cruel. Thousands of high-achieving students at poorly performing schools had grades lowered; not out of their own doing but because a computer deemed their results to be too good for their circumstances. Instead of relying on teachers’ knowledge of their students, young adults have been unfairly penalised based on their school’s history. There is no surer way to entrench inequality than to judge a student by their background and opportunities, and not their personal ability.

Overall, in England, a staggering 39.1% of results were downgraded. This equates to around 280,000 grades. Although some students inevitably perform worse under exam conditions than expected, it is fundamentally wrong to penalise students on the assumption that they would have dropped the ball if they had sat their exams. There is no way for a teacher to know who will surpass expectations and who will not. Equally, there is no crystal ball to inform them which students may have a mental block during a paper, or accidentally miss out a question. In short, exam results were always going to be different and challenging this year, but that is no excuse for the systematic discrimination perpetrated by Ofqual’s moderation process.

It is undeniable that the students worst hit by the calculation process were the most disadvantaged. There was  a huge difference between independent and comprehensive schools in terms of results, with independent schools seeing a 4.7% increase in A and A* grades, compared to 2.0% for secondary comprehensives, and just 0.3% for sixth forms and other post-16 colleges. This means that independent schools saw an increase in A and A* grades 15 times higher than for sixth form colleges compared to last year. 

Aside from factoring in the school’s results history, another possible reason for this disparity is Ofqual’s decision to give more weight to centre-assessed grades for small cohorts of 15 or less per subject. Once again, this prioritises independent and selective schools at the expense of larger sixth form colleges and comprehensives, which often have far larger class and cohort sizes. While these grades received strict standardisation, many independent schools’ grades did not receive the same harsh scrutiny. This is a further snub to the thousands of overworked and underpaid teaching staff in comprehensive schools and colleges: while teachers at independent schools were far more likely to be trusted in the grades they awarded, state-school teachers could only sit back and watch as their hard work was trampled over by the Ofqual standardisation process.

The fact remains that the government has overseen an inherently flawed system which they had five months to develop. For all the talk of “levelling up” the country, this year’s results demonstrate the opposite. Many more disadvantaged students missed out on university places and other educational opportunities while those from higher-achieving schools were far less impacted. Amongst other government ministers, Gavin Williamson’s stubborn defence of the results process in the days that followed served only to highlight how out of touch the government is with young people and educational inequality in the UK. 

Despite the announcement that all appeals against results will be funded by the government this year, Williamson still did not go far enough in the immediate aftermath of results day. If the government truly wished to “level up” and ensure that all students have equal opportunities, then they should never have used a discriminatory algorithm in the first place. They should have followed Scotland’s lead to give all students the grades their teachers had allocated them, rather than caving in to peer pressure a week after a frightening results day.

It was clear from the start that this was the only way to prevent this year’s attainment gap from widening between the privileged and the under-privileged – the only way for students from all backgrounds to feel listened to, and valued equally. It was the only way to ensure that every student could have attended their chosen university and poorer students could have the best chance at escaping poverty, thanks to better job opportunities.

Critics will argue that accepting teacher-assessed grades may well result in an improvement in performance for this year’s students. But pupils at independent schools largely saw this improvement anyway. Thanks to the algorithm, they made their university offers and can now look forward to their next steps. It is the disadvantaged, the low-income, the forgotten young people who almost had their hopes completely crushed. If the government truly wants to ensure that no student feels forgotten, they have a long way to go to repair the trust that has been broken.

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