Losing control: The problem with the government’s results day u-turn

Last Thursday, the number of students receiving A or A* grades for their non-assessed A Level results increased by 2.4 per cent to 27.6 per cent. However, despite the largest increase in students receiving the top grades since 2001, current students still felt begrudged that they had not received their teacher-predicted grades.

In less than a week of stomping their feet, students have now been given a choice between receiving their often over-estimated predicted grades or, if higher, their algorithm-based grade. But by providing students with the choice, this government is unjustly positioning A Level students of the past and the future at a severe disadvantage to the class of Covid-19. 

The government had a long time to prepare for this fiasco, and the apparent solution was to work night and day to ensure that students sat exams, whether delayed or not. But instead of taking decisive action, this government has dithered and delayed; it now faces the consequences.

For those questioning whether or not socially distanced exams could work, the number of available floor spaces at our closed schools would have easily facilitated the demand. If not, then I see no issue with the government temporarily using closed gyms, sports halls and other recreational facilities to accommodate for those sitting A Levels.   

My unwavering view that the use of predicted grades is a sham is because I have seen how they are used. Last week, I met up with some old school friends, and we discussed the results day debacle. To my surprise, all of us had fallen short of obtaining our teacher predicted grades. Worse still we knew nobody at school who obtained them.

This anecdotal evidence is mirrored in a report conducted by UCL’s Institute for Education. The report stated that just 16 per cent of students obtain their predicted grades once they sit their summer exams, and three-in-four students received grades lower than their teachers predicted. The report’s damning conclusion that teacher predictions over-estimate the capabilities of students added that Britain’s most disadvantaged students are the main losers from over-prediction. 

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that rather than amending the attainment gap, the government’s u-turn has only widened the gap further. 

The algorithm placed the attainment gap for A-grade students at little over 7 per cent, but by using teacher predictions, this has grown to over 8 per cent. The gap for A* students is even greater. The disparity increased from 2.75 per cent to 4.41 per cent.

It appears to me that political commentators have overlooked the stark problems in teacher-based assessment and have bought into a false notion that students ‘deserved’ the grades that teachers predicted them. This is a slap in the face to students who had worked long hours, stressed for months and completed their rigorous series of exams in years gone by. 

If people do support applying ‘predictions’ to assessment in the Covid-years are they also suggesting that we apply this logic to any other assessment derailed by the pandemic? What next, driving instructors predicting whether or not their students will pass or fail based on a gut-feeling clouded by emotional attachment to a likeable student? That would hardly fill fellow road users with faith that they will be safe. 

The over-inflation in teacher predictions is so blatantly obvious that England’s exam watchdog correctly predicted that with the government u-turn the number of students receiving A or A* grades skyrockets to almost two-in-four. 

Unless supporters of the u-turn are seriously going to argue that this year’s cohort of A Level students are vastly more academically capable than any other year on record, then it is evident that this decision is a failure of government to protect the integrity of our education system, that would subsequently position students well beyond their capabilities. 

Nobody wants to devalue the hard work of tens of thousands of 17 and 18 years old, who strive so hard, year-on-year, for their university places. However, that is precisely what this government has opted to do. 

While the class of 2019 and 2021 have been bowled a fast-paced beamer, the students of 2020 have been given a free slog at a no-ball.

Of course, it’s not their fault, but it cannot be right to sacrifice the integrity of our education system for the sake of a short-term antidote to aggravated public opinion.

The long-term effect of this will prove costly to the British education system and the nation’s economy. There will be little to no distinction between the cohorts when all of these students are vying for the ultra-competitive jobs that the Covid-recession has already eaten away at. 

Even for students rejoicing at obtaining their exceptional and questionably allocated predicted grades, they may put themselves at risk of problems further down the line. 

Grade inflation will affect those seen as the ‘beneficiaries’ as well as those they are competing against. Would it be fair to mistreat this year as the class of Covid? Of course not.

Nonetheless, the failure of this government in the handling of A Level results and the subsequent u-turn has created political, as well as economic and educational problems. 

Support for the so-called People’s government has dwindled throughout this pandemic. The Cummings controversy, school shutdown and free school meal fiasco have signified a complete weakness by Boris Johnson and his team to govern the United Kingdom in the way they see fit.

This is not to say that the government has not achieved some great things. Their ‘die in a ditch’ stance to ensure that the UK left the European Union is a central part to Boris Johnson’s political accolades while at Number 10. 

But the failures, including the ongoing Dover dinghies debacle, are ramping up. The u-turns, the poor pandemic messaging and fears among Brexiteers of a capitulation in talks with Brussels that could compromise British independence, would compound embarrassment upon embarrassment. 

It is no different with the A Level and GCSE results. In less than a week, the Prime Minister has gone from describing the results procedure as ‘robust’ to removing the algorithm altogether.

Boris Johnson needs to start channeling his inner ‘Maggie’ spirit and do what is best for Britain, not buckle at first sight of political difficulty.

The Prime Minister will have plenty more challenges to overcome so the government needs to stop fearing short-term hits to public approval and find a political backbone.

If not, then Boris Johnson is stuck on the highway of ineptitude. His SatNav of public mood has malfunctioned, and he urgently needs Cummings and co to find the road map in the Conservatives’ cluttered car. Otherwise, with the teacher unions and Michel Barnier forming bumps in the road, the Prime Minister could be blindly hurtling towards a political car-crash in 2024.

By J Walters

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