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13 August 2020

Britain’s governments are trying to return to a world that doesn’t exist

The priority is to issue results that are "normal" – but that is not possible.

By Stephen Bush

Students across England, Wales and Northern Ireland have received their exam results. The exam watchdogs can say they have succeeded in their mandate of maintaining the integrity of the results: all three ombudsmen have produced results broadly in keeping with what we’d expect in a “normal” year, though, as Michael explains, there is significant unfairness at a micro-level.

Ofqual has produced a slightly more equitable overall process than Scotland’s SQA: the richest students in England have seen their results downgraded by 8.4 per cent, while the poorest 20 per cent have seen their results downgraded by 10.3 per cent. In Scotland, where the government has already agreed to re-upgrade results following a backlash, the gap between the richest and poorest quintile after moderation was twice as large.

In Wales – where because the assessment process is more modular, students are being assessed in part on the back of their GCSE coursework and AS-Level results – students have a degree of control over their results, in a way they do not have elsewhere in the UK. And Northern Ireland, where the results will be heavily skewed towards those in grammar schools, may simply have a higher political tolerance for a large gap in educational outcomes

But in England, smaller assessment centres – such as state sixth form colleges in large cities, and private schools – have done significantly better than larger ones: that is to say, most state schools and sixth form colleges in small towns. This is because Ofqual has given more weight to teacher’s predicted grades when students are in a smaller cohort.

All of that reveals one of the inevitable problems with this process: the exam system in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland consolidates its assessment of pupils into big setpiece exams at 16 and 18, which makes it impossible to draw accurate conclusions about the performance of individual pupils. You can hand out the “right” number of passes, but not to the “right” people.

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That, of course, speaks to the bigger, and systemic problem at work: the entire exercise is flawed from the start. As I wrote yesterday, you can’t hand out exam results without exams!

The desire to do so comes from a desire to be able to draw a line under 2020: to be able to say, yes, what an awful year, but we are back to “normal”. So, the “normal” number of people are shut out of the labour market because they don’t have passing grades in English and maths; the “normal” number of people have secured enough basic qualifications to get a minimum wage job; the “normal” number of people have missed their A-Level offer and must go through clearing to get into a university; the “normal” number of people can progress to their first-choice university or apprenticeship. All very “normal”!

The reality is that this hasn’t happened. Imagine for a moment a school-leaver, ranked first by their teachers and predicted all As, who has grown up in a cramped home as the eldest of four children. They are raised by a single parent, who works as a keyworker at a supermarket or as a delivery driver. This child still achieved their three As and is headed to their university of choice. Are they as ready or able to learn and grow at university as an equivalent child in 2019? Of course not! When you remember that this person will likely be studying remotely and attending university from home for at least the next academic year, the challenges of their position become clear.

Or imagine another child: the only child of, say, two doctors. They, too, have been ranked top by their teachers and are headed to their university of choice. Are they as “university-ready” as they would have been in a “normal” year. Of course not! They’ve been shut off from seeing their friends since March, and have spent the past few months semi-continuously worrying that their parents might die.

And yet these two children are the winners from this process. The difficult truth is that the scars of the 2020 school closures, however necessary they were to prevent the coronavirus from overwhelming healthcare capacity and causing many, many more deaths than happened, are going to linger with us for a long time.

Coming down the track we have other problems too. Even assuming the best of all possible worlds – excellent teachers, receiving strong leadership from the school heads, the department of education and the government – the 2021 cohort are not going to receive the same standard of education as children educated before the pandemic. That’s even if you assume that we will be able to avoid further school closures, whether nationally or locally. Next year’s school-leavers will be the worst-educated in decades.

We are not going to be able to get back to “normal” as far as education and skills are concerned for a very long time as a result of those pressures, perhaps not for many years. We can only shape policy to deal with the inevitable legacy of 2020 – and hope that policymakers can make the right decisions to mean that 2021 is more like 2019 than 2020.

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