For this year’s school leavers, a return to “normal” means dashed hopes and a loss of control

Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon have found themselves in the same predicament over exam results.

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Shortly before his party was routed in the 2014 European Parliament elections, David Cameron was asked what he thought the secret of the Conservatives’ success was. His answer? Control. In Cameron’s reading of the world, what ­united his opponents – Alex Salmond in Scotland, Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage in England – was that they were all offering false solutions to a real problem: that ­people felt a lack of agency over their lives and ­security over their circumstances.

The Conservative challenge, he said, lay in demonstrating that their path led to a ­greater sense of control. The approach worked, ­after a fashion: it saw off the Yes campaign in Scotland later in 2014, and ­Miliband in 2015. But Cameron’s insight wasn’t enough to save him from ­defeat in the 2016 EU referendum, which ended his premiership. Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon are, in different ways, successful because they understand that a sense of powerlessness is one of the strongest forces in British politics.

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Johnson beat Cameron in 2016 with the Vote Leave campaign slogan “take back ­control”, and then won the 2019 general election by pledging to restore a sense of control to an increasingly ­fractious and unpredictable politics. Sturgeon – ­Johnson’s opposite number in Scotland, and his biggest near-term threat – is spooking the Conservatives because of her effectiveness in outlining why the ­Union ­between ­Scotland and the rest of the UK involves surrendering control of Scotland’s destiny to England.

Yet both Johnson and Sturgeon have found themselves in the same predicament over exam results in England and Scotland: a row in which the central problem concerns a lack of control. Sturgeon lasted less than a week after the publication of moderated Scottish results before making a U-turn on 11 ­August and announcing that any downgraded results would be upgraded back to teachers’ estimates – and when she did, almost everyone believed that Johnson would have to do the same sooner rather than later.

[see also: Will Scotland’s exams U-turn force Boris Johnson’s government to follow?]

In March, the response to Covid-19 forced ­secondary schools in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to shut, preventing this year’s group of ­school leavers from taking exams. Originally, all four UK governments opted for a process called moderation, in which teachers produce predicted results, and the ­regulatory body then adjusts them in order to ­produce a more “accurate” picture of how those students would have done had exams gone ahead.

As a consequence, some students will do better or, more often, worse than ­predicted – not because of anything they have done, but because of a ­calculation based on factors outside their control, ranging from their school’s previous results to how their teachers ranked them against their classmates. For many children, the adjustment in results will be the difference between their first-choice university or ­apprenticeship place, and no place at all. Even more ­importantly, for students who graduate without a pass grade in maths and English, they will be shut out of most jobs in the British labour market.

[see also: Why Nicola Sturgeon’s apology over Scotland’s exams calamity isn’t enough]

Every year pupils are denied their preferred university choice, and every year some leave school without those passing grades in maths and English. The major difference is that this year’s cohort will have had no hand in shaping its own destiny. That unfairness is particularly acute in Northern Ireland, where ­students have not undergone centralised tests since the end of primary school, ­leaving no useful data to feed into the ­moderating process.

Annual assessments of literacy and numeracy in Welsh secondary schools do, at least, mean that Qualifications Wales can incorporate a degree of individual ­autonomy into this year’s results. In England, while Ofqual has more information with which to judge the progress of individual students than its equivalent in Northern Ireland, there is still a ­significant degree of guesswork ­involved in the process.

Why change grades at all? The policy rationale is that, while teachers can predict exam results with a reasonably high degree of accuracy – four assessments in every five will be correct – they cannot do it perfectly. Teacher-led assessment would, this year, result in a higher number of passing grades, and a higher number of grades in general, than in “normal” years. That would impose a double unfairness: first on previous students who went through the old process, and second on next year’s group, which is highly likely to do worse than previous years, thanks to the effect of nearly half a year of missed schooling.

[see also: Failing to reopen schools is the most catastrophic decision the government has made so far]

As Scotland did previously, England, Wales and Northern Ireland now face the same problem – that the watchdog is essentially being presented with a room of 81 pupils, told that 14 of them have been given excessively high grades, and, essentially, to pick who the unlucky 14 to be downgraded are. These devolved governments have different amounts of information to draw on, meaning that the process requires less pure guesswork in England and Wales than Scotland and Northern ­Ireland, but it involves a degree of guesswork nonetheless.

The main problem is that the British government – which because of its control over funding, sets the pace for the devolved administrations – has opted to prioritise a return to ­“normal”. This means going back to the world in which two-thirds of children on free school meals are left without a passing grade in ­English and maths; in which further ­education was an afterthought; and school leavers were often left with a choice between university and the deep blue sea.

That unfairness and lack of control are most pressing for this year’s school leavers: but will be shared with those that follow. And Johnson, like Cameron, might find that a loss of control for voters – or future voters – has a political cost for him too. 

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.

This article appears in the 14 August 2020 issue of the New Statesman, This house must fall

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