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Artillery Row

A-level results: an A* in confusion

A-level debacle epitomises the government’s farcical handling of schools throughout the pandemic

Well, we can’t say we weren’t warned. The monumental shambles that the government has managed to create out of this year’s A-level results has forerunners elsewhere. In July came the marking scandal that reduced the International Baccalaureate Diploma, hitherto a world-class post-16 qualification, to a largely baffling collection of confused grades which has left thousands of students bewildered, many unable to access their university places.  Then, this week, came the Scottish Government’s screeching U-turn, keystone-cop like in its recklessness, allowing students north of the border to get whatever grades their teachers wanted them to have, regardless of how generous that might be. In both political expediency combined with a misplaced devotion to statistical modelling resulting in a set of grades so lacking in consistency that it could take years to restore them to a level of reliability that is so essential to universities and future employers.  

But it turns out these catastrophic episodes of organisational ineptitude were only the amuse bouches leading up to the main course, the prize turkey, that the government was getting oven-ready for an unsuspecting country. Late on Tuesday night, literally hours before secondary schools across England started receiving their A level results, Gavin Williamson, our hapless, helpless, Secretary of State for Education, intervened to inject new levels of chaos and confusion into a school system already at breaking point. The government’s astonishing decision to allow A-level students the opportunity to choose their mock examination grades if they don’t like the ones they have been awarded shows not only a deep lack of trust in teachers’ judgements, but also undermines the authority of the examinations’ regulator, Ofqual (who clearly knew nothing about the decision in advance). 

Relations between the Department for Education and schools are rarely harmonious, but the scale of the breaking of trust between government and schools, as well as regulator and examination bodies, is breathtaking. Let’s not forget that when schools were closed down in March all of the responsibility for determining A-level and GCSE grades swiftly moved to teachers. They duly spent weeks discussing which grades they felt were deserved, and then had to rank each student according to the confidence they had in those grades.  It was often agonisingly slow work, especially for those schools with thousands of students taking these qualifications. 

But on Tuesday night, in a move that smacked of both panic and weakness, the government binned all that work in a desperate attempt to shore up university places and avoid the political fallout they had seen hit the SNP. Their shamelessness only added to the outrage.

The A-level debacle represents the latest in a long line of indecisions and failures

Williamson has described this smorgasbord of grade options (awarded, mock, or Autumn examinations) as a ‘triple lock’. How comforting that sounds, how thought-through and interconnected, above all, how secure. It is, of course, nothing of the sort; instead it is a semantic illusion, weak link after weak link, rusted still further by the corrosive lack of leadership emanating from the corner office in Great Smith Street, that black hole where decisiveness goes to die. The A-level debacle represents the latest in a long line of indecisions and failures that have characterised the government’s handling of schools through the pandemic: the mass shut down, the inability to bring primary school children back early, the failure to send out laptops to disadvantaged families, the farce of the free school meals tokens…on and on it all goes, five long shaming months that have seen the vast majority of this country’s children neglected by those who have the power – and the moral duty – to protect them. If this government was a parent a responsible school would have contacted social services about its behaviour a long time ago. 

The fiasco that surrounds the A-level results this week will be replayed again next week with the GCSE results, and both will wash into the full reopening of schools in September, sending further waves of confusion into universities in October. It would be impossible to devise a set of policies more effective at shattering confidence in our public examinations, destroying morale among teachers, and making our students feel unsafe, than those seemingly pulled together in Whitehall in a couple of all-nighters. It is a national tragedy directed by a clown.

If a government cannot protect the country’s most vulnerable – the young and the old – then what purpose does it serve? Our schools and care homes have fallen quiet, the nation’s pasts and futures damaged not out of misplaced idealism but, worse, a crippling ineptitude that only thinly conceals a competing, shallow self-interest and a desperate desire to survive. This cabinet is the distorted and inverted offspring of Margaret Thatcher, bringing error when we deserved truth, doubt when we wanted faith, and despair when, above all else, we desperately needed hope. Now, there should be no appeals or re-marks for them: from start to finish, their treatment of schools has been a resounding, abject F for failure. They need to be expelled.

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