Gavin Williamson is a bystander in England’s exams row – but not for the reason you think

All four governments’ original sin is seeing the problem as one that secondary schools and the exams watchdog can solve.

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In England, the Department for Education has moved to head off a row over its exam results after the Scottish government was forced to U-turn on its own results earlier this week. The policy – a so-called triple lock – will mean that students will be able to either resit their exams in the autumn, appeal to a  “valid” mock exam grade, or accept their moderated grade from Ofqual, the exams watchdog in England, whichever is the highest. 

The U-turn in practice is less generous than the one opted for by the Scottish government, because it is not clear what a “valid” mock grade is and the appeals process may result in fewer people taking up the option in any case.

Will it work politically? I don’t know. As a policy solution, it is inadequate and will cause further uncertainty for pupils, but that problem – in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, the latter two of which have yet to put forward a new approach – is baked into the cake. The process itself is irretrievably flawed, because the examinations watchdog has been given a silly and impossible task.

The central problem that all four of Britain’s governments are grappling with is the same: you can’t accurately replicate the results of exams without people actually taking the exams.

You can hand out roughly the “right” number of passes but you cannot hand them out to the right people. From the perspective of an employer, a higher or further education institution, these results are junk, regardless of the process. They don’t meaningfully allow you to engage in the basic filtering that, say, a passing grade at English and Maths would otherwise allow you to do. Even a straight-A student, if they emerge from this process with the straight-As they “would” have got via exams, will be less qualified and less skilled than a student who hadn’t had their education and socialisation disrupted by lockdown and the pandemic.

The United Kingdom’s four exam regulators have been set an impossible task: to guarantee the integrity of a process that has had the integrity stripped from it. You can’t fairly or accurately hand out exam grades in 2020 based on someone else’s exam grades in 2019 any more than we could allocate medals for the delayed Tokyo Olympics based on the medal hauls in the 2016 Olympics. The only fair way to hand out prizes is to have the competition. 

This is wisdom after the fact, of course: in March I didn’t realise the inherent ridiculousness of the exercise. This is a good example of the underlying problem with the approach all four governments have taken, which is that the second you define a problem, you inevitably place limitations on your view of the problem and the policy levers you are going to pull.

See also: Chris Deerin on why Nicola Sturgeon's exams apology isn't enough

The United Kingdom’s exam regulators have been set a task of preventing grade inflation and ensuring that the results look roughly right, a continuation of their mandate in normal terms. They have all, broadly, succeeded at that task. Ofqual and Qualifications Wales have both emerged well from the process thus far: they have been transparent and communicative throughout the process and will, hopefully, have produced results in line with their mandate. The picture is less positive in Scotland, where the Scottish Qualifications Authority has been less transparent, and it is unclear what basis it has for increasing the overall pass rate, given the rate has stagnated for years.

In terms of these institutions’ capacity to resist grade inflation and ensure the integrity of the process in normal terms, we can give them all passing grades, and Ofqual and Qualifications Wales have both done very well.

The problem is that, to return to the Olympic analogy, it’s a bit like asking the anti-doping authorities to take charge of handing out the 2020 medals. It might tell us something useful about their commitment to tackling doping in sport, but it doesn’t actually tell us who would have failed and flourished at the 2020 Olympics. Corporate sponsors and sporting brands – the universities, colleges and businesses of this analogy – are not going to hand out sponsorship deals in the same spirit to the projected 2020 gold medallists as they did to the 2016 or 2012 ones. 

Whatever fix you do, there is no way to assign grades fairly or meaningfully without undergoing the usual assessment process. Different parts of the United Kingdom are better and worse equipped to do this, but none of them is able to do it successfully: they can just do it a bit less badly. There’s simply a question of different harms, and what the state and society can do to mitigate those.

That’s why the problem of “What to do about the 2020 cohort?” can’t really be answered by Ofqual or schools, because the problem isn’t: “How do we ensure the integrity of the 2020 exam results?” There are no exam results and therefore little in the way of meaningful integrity to be bestowed upon them. The real problem is: “What do we do about the fact the 2020 cohort is not going to receive meaningful qualifications this year?” That involves so many moving parts well outside secondary schools it’s near-pointless to consult them.

Those problems are: allocation of places at higher education institutions; providing both basic skills and credentials for the labour market; and “re-skilling” the 2020 school leavers. Those are questions that can only be answered with reference to the government’s policy on the labour market, on apprenticeships, and on further and higher education. Which students you pretend have and haven’t met, surpassed or fallen below their expectations at 16 or 18 is entirely redundant.

See also: Phil Whitaker on the reopening of schools and the risk of a second wave

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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