When the A-level results were released in England last week it quickly became clear the government had failed its own test to create a fair and balanced grading system. The algorithm built by exams regulator Ofqual and heartily supported by ministers, resulted in the downgrading of nearly 40 per cent of the grades predicted by teachers. To make matters worse, it was poorer students who were impacted the most. Data showed that the results of those from socio-economic backgrounds fell by a larger margin than their better-off peers after moderation.
Ofqual has rightly shared the blame with the beleaguered education secretary, Gavin Williamson—but it should not be forgotten that the government has a long and shameful history of failing working-class people. From harsh austerity measures to Covid-19 disparities, the government has continually demonstrated a lack of empathy for the less well-off. This failure has fuelled this entirely preventable exams saga, which left young people fearing for their futures.
Ofqual’s algorithm was ostensibly designed to make the grading process equitable for a cohort of students who have been unable to sit exams due to the pandemic. Teachers were asked to make assessments of all their pupils and the results were then put through the algorithm. This was apparently done because Ofqual thought teachers were likely to be more generous in assigning an estimated mark, which could lead to grade inflation.
Despite mounting criticism, government ministers doubled down for days and insisted there would be no significant changes to the system. On Monday, however, Williamson did indeed make a U-turn and accepted it had produced more “significant inconsistencies” than could be rectified through an appeals process. He pledged to allow the original teacher assessments to stand. While the decision was largely met with relief, many students remain annoyed and frustrated at the overall handling of the situation. It’s clear that regaining the trust of working-class students and their families, who have been treated with contempt throughout the process, will not be an easy task.
When the true scale of the algorithm’s bias was revealed, dismayed students wrote to Ofqual and the Department for Education urging them to change the unfair procedures. Many were sceptical from the start about the government’s commitment to “fairness," which is understandable given that a lack of social mobility in Britain has led to deep unease about equal access to good education, housing and jobs in deprived regions. According to the government’s own data, the better off are nearly 80 per cent more likely to end up in professional jobs than those from a working-class background.
This demonstrates that the government neither understands, nor empathises with working-class communities. The problem will not be rectified overnight but to begin building bridges, it must start by breaking down the barriers to accessing higher education amid the deepest recession since records began. Many of those most impacted by the austerity measures that followed the 2008 recession were economically disadvantaged.
If the same situation occurs this time around, it would be even more devastating for low-income students who were hoping to head to university. Every student must be reassured their views will not only be heard, but also form part of the solution to resolve any existing unfairness in grading systems. Equally though, those taking apprenticeships, BTEC awards (which enabled my own route to university) or seeking to enter the workforce directly also deserve to be heard. (The government again has failed here, as it announced to half a million students in an eleventh hour decision last night that they won’t get their BTEC results on time.)
In addition, it would be hugely beneficial if education leaders made more than the occasional fleeting visit to hard-hit communities across the UK. Perhaps if Williamson had spent more time listening to the views of young people and their families in deprived northern towns such as Blackburn, where I was raised, he’d truly understand the fury of those who feel their young people are being left behind.