Kate Clanchy diary: Oxford in the exam storm, and summer evenings down by the Thames

A magical looking-glass in the middle of our city separates a racially mixed, socially deprived town from a turreted village of dons, quads and gowns.

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On Monday 10 August, Mukahang came round. He’s my former pupil, my protégé, and my collaborator in a dozen poetry projects. Nowadays it’s socially distanced poetry editing, achieved by sharing an online document six feet apart, only our cursors rubbing cheeks on the screen.

Between us are cardboard boxes of the anthology we made with other students over lockdown, Unmute; heaps of books and letters; and the cat, for whom Mukahang – as a sturdy, practical Nepalese who has spent many hours working with his mother as a cleaner – has no sentimental feeling. “Just, like, fluff, Kate,” he says, as she cavorts hopefully around his ankles. “Yeuch.”

Mukahang grew up near the Cowley Road, in the racially mixed, socially deprived area to the east of Oxford, but last year got himself a place at the university. The journey through the magical looking-glass in the middle of our city – the one that separates a town not unlike Hounslow from a turreted village of dons, quads and gowns – is hardly easy, but Mukahang has managed it with aplomb. “Everyone thinks I’m a posh Hong Kong boy, LOLZ!!!” he texted five days in.

Covid-19 has left Mukahang living alone in college accommodation for six months, as his mother, defeated by Universal Credit and the spare room tax, gave up their flat when he left home. They visit one another regularly but the strain is clear. Mukahang’s new poem is about a new tooth, and if this could possibly be “wisdom” growing in an overfilled laundry basket, “like a rare, muscular orchid that smells of socks”.

These distracted days

When I’ve read it enough, I’ll lend Mukahang Wayne Holloway-Smith’s new poetry collection Love Minus Love (Bloodaxe). It will keep him company because it’s so intimate and direct: the story of growing up with a single mother, abuse, poverty and bereavement, told with wit and kindness and love. I’m not sure I’m quite ready to give it up yet: it’s hard, these distracted days, to find something so focused and intent, such an entirely immersive read.

Ofqual’s ugly algorithm

The week before the A-level results, rumours rise with the mercury. On Thursday, the storm breaks. I email Ms A about how they are doing in our school. Ms A got Mukahang and his friend Helen an A* in A-level English last year, while also helping a larger group of students progress to pass grades. They were students with English as an additional language, special educational needs and the disadvantages that come with poverty – students who, in most schools, wouldn’t be allowed to take A-levels.

I never saw her ruffled in the ten years I worked with her, but now she is distraught. All her candidates have been downgraded to below a C. The top student, Rosy, got a 9 (the highest grade) at GCSE and an A at AS-level. She often got full marks on assignments. She was set for A* at A-level. But Ofqual’s algorithm worked against Ms A’s record on inclusion. It used three-year averages to calculate that less than one person in Rosy’s cohort could get above a B, so all her success was disregarded.

I tweet about Rosy’s plight and it goes viral. She’s far from alone. The Ofqual algorithm is an ugly news machine. The way it is calculated hits high-achieving outliers at disadvantaged schools and colleges and to deprive them of their hard-won places at prestigious universities. Their hurt, baffled faces fill our screens.

The private schools, I notice, have piped down: there are none of the usual pictures of jumping teens in the local paper, despite the record-breaking boost to their marks. Perhaps they’re nervous. Our obsessive high-stakes exam system has always favoured their small classes and the confidence that comes from traditions of success. The algorithm has baked that in, but also exposed it.

Last year, my tweet about Mukahang’s A-level triumph was nearly as popular as the one about Rosy’s downgrade: in the replies, people wrote how glad they were that “there was some justice in the system”. The algorithm, based only on what we have always done, confronts us with how little justice there is. In subsequent days, as the government is forced into a U-turn, we learn how much we need Mukahang stories. No wonder he is feeling the pressure.

Messing about in boats

I still finish the day by getting in the river, as I have every day of lockdown. In April, the dirt in the water dropped away with the noise of traffic, and the Thames turned as eerily clear as a Scottish loch. Now the traffic noise is back, and the cruisers, too, their wakes bashing the banks; the river is once again a thick, muddy green.

I’m not on my own any more, either: I breaststroke downstream with kayaks, families in inflatable canoes, pedal boats, flotillas of this year’s must-have accessory – paddle-boards – and a bearded person I assume to be a don in an actual coracle. There’s every craft, in fact, except the usual rulers of the Thames: the tourist punts and the rowing eights with their scything oars.

Lockdown has had one unexpected effect: Oxford town has come to the river at last – even the “gown” part of it by the university boathouses. There are Nepalese women feeding the swans by Iffley lock, multicultural groups of teenagers puffing out smoke from the green bank, a Nigerian family strolling in the water meadow, and, in the abandoned city lido, a group of Pakistani sisters teaching their little brother to float by shouting at him in Urdu and English. I hope, when the university returns with its pageantry and Eights Week and blades in college colours, that everyone remembers this river is shared. 

Kate Clanchy is a writer, teacher and winner of the Orwell Prize for political writing

This article appears in the 21 August 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Failed

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