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19 August 2020

How the exams fiasco revealed a cold truth about life after coronavirus

There will be no return to “normal” in 2021, even if an unexpectedly rapid medical advance allows the world to subdue coronavirus.

By Stephen Bush

Devotees of the hit television show The Simpsons generally agree that the moment it started to flounder can be traced to one episode. In “The Principal and the Pauper”, in the show’s ninth season, it is revealed that Seymour Skinner, the local school’s headteacher, is in fact an impostor called Armin Tamzarian. A series of improbable events is brought to a close when a judge declares that Tamzarian should return to living as Skinner – and that the matter will never be spoken of again. For many fans, it was a line in the sand – a sign that the show had become increasingly ridiculous, unmoored from its origins. The Simpsons continues to air, but most believe it has long since passed its best.

Conservative MPs are prone to declaring that this or that crisis represents Boris Johnson’s Tamzarian moment, when the government’s incompetence finally starts to hurt the party politically. It has become an established truth among most Tory MPs that this Downing Street is great at winning elections, but largely hopeless at the tricky work of what happens after the victory.

As with the fictional equivalent, the latest Tamzarian candidate concerns schools, and the government’s hesitant and confused handling of the row over GCSE and A-level exam results. Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, has become a familiar scapegoat at Westminster, partly because he embodies the government’s strengths and weaknesses. Williamson is an adept reader of the parliamentary mood and player of the political game, and MPs say he was careful and diligent in managing his flock as chief whip. But his focus on his departmental brief is negligible: long before the crisis, civil servants would complain that he has no interest in the day job, an irritation that is shared by Conservative education reformers. They compare him unflatteringly to Michael Gove, who implemented the spread of free schools around England, and to Justine Greening, who masterminded the construction of a new school to ensure that the children of Grenfell did not miss a single lesson because of the fire. Williamson’s political grip and organisational flair, however, mean that many regard him as unsackable: as one MP put it, “it’s better to have him inside the tent fucking up than outside the tent fucking Boris”.

Williamson is by no means blameless for the exams fiasco. Surprisingly for a man usually considered an effective political operator, he did nothing to dissuade the Scottish Conservatives from campaigning loudly and fiercely for the removal of John Swinney, the Scottish Education Secretary, for his handling of the same issue. Williamson’s initial interviews about the crisis were ill-judged, and spread uncertainty about the results among pupils, parents, schools and universities. His U-turn on 17 August, which will allow more students to take up places at their first-choice universities than ever before, leaves less popular universities facing a cash crisis. And the original problem – of having to simulate rather than hold exams – stems from his failure to reopen schools, because he preferred to engage in a media-friendly war with the teaching unions rather than grapple with the challenges of resuming education in the spring.

But the problem is deeper than a disengaged secretary of state. The underlying issue is that both the Tories in Westminster and the SNP in Holyrood were attempting to do the impossible: to provide exam grades without exams. Thanks to Ed Balls’s abolition of Standard Attainment Tests and Gove’s abolition of coursework and modular exams, students in England, as has long been the case for Scottish children, have no formal exams from the age of 11 to 16.

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This means that there is no reliable way to assess and grade individual children across different schools. The English and Scottish governments are left with only two ways to allocate grades: they either rely solely on the assessments of teachers. or assess children not on their own performance but on that of their school in past years. Both solutions deny students any direct opportunity to shape their own futures. The problem of assessing children using the results of previous years is that it creates a lottery in which the working class, particularly in small towns, are allowed to buy fewer tickets than the middle class and pupils in private schools.

So why not just use teacher assessment to begin with? Because teachers are generally more generous than exam results would be, which means this year’s cohort will have higher grades and better qualifications than next year’s – potentially creating an unfair rift between the class of 2020 and that of 2021. The original aim of both the English and Scottish governments was to be able to go back to “normal” as soon as possible.

But the difficult truth that neither has fully accepted is that there will be no return to normal in 2021, even if an unexpectedly rapid medical advance allows the world to subdue coronavirus. The big lie at the heart of the exam row is that any of this year’s school leavers can meaningfully be compared to last year’s. Every schoolchild, from the youngest to the oldest, has had their life and education disrupted by the pandemic. The consequences of six months’ missed schooling will be felt not just by next year’s exam-takers but by every cohort whose learning was interrupted. All will need more support and care than previous years if they are to close the gap.

That, then, is the government’s real Tamzarian moment: the doomed attempt to draw a line under the year of the pandemic and never speak about it again.

In truth, there can be no return to the world before coronavirus, however much we might wish it. We will never be able to forget that this year happened – and any government that tries will experience many more weeks as fraught as this one.