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“E” for effort

Exams fiasco: Gavin Williamson has failed

Artillery Row

“We know that simply using predicted grades would not be fair to all students,” said the Department of Education in March. Having cancelled the May and June GCSE, AS-level and A-level exams, the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, was at pains to make clear that a “robust” system would instead separate the sheep from the goats. This would not just rely on what grade predictions schools made for their pupils. The exam regulator, Ofqual, would use its own algorithm to adjust predicted results. This modifier would identify where schools were predicting better (or worse) performances that were noticeably at variance with past years’ results at the school.

Last Thursday, A-level candidates discovered how that algorithm affected their predicted grade – and potentially the future course of their lives. It was good news for a few of them: 2.2 percent of predicted results were bumped-up a grade by the algorithm. But almost 40 percent of predicted grades were adjusted down. What appeals process could adequately handle disputing these 28,000 downgrades? And could pupils even trust their schools to handle that process adeptly on their behalf?

Today, Gavin Williamson announced that what he said would not be fair in March was fair after all. The Ofqual algorithm was being junked and pupils’ results would indeed be whatever their teachers had earlier hoped/expected they would be. The Education secretaries of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland had already come to the same conclusion.

Explaining his volte-face, Williamson pinpointed the moment he realised the Ofqual calculated grade approach was not so infallible after all. “Over the weekend it became clearer to me that the number of students who were getting grades that frankly they shouldn’t have been getting and should have been doing a lot better,” he told Sky News, “as we looked at it in further detail over Saturday and Sunday it became evident that further action needed to be taken.”

Oddly, this was the same weekend in which Williamson had defiantly protested “there would be no change, no u-turn.” Indeed, on Saturday he told The Times, that the SNP government in Edinburgh had been mistaken to U-turn because of the public furore against the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s downwards adjustment of exam results. He argued that Scotland’s relying instead on the predictions set by schools created “a system where there aren’t any controls; you’ve got rampant grade inflation,” adding for good measure, “there’s been no checks and balances in that system; it degrades every single grade.”

That, of course, was in the Edwardian summer before this Monday morning, when Boris Johnson interrupted his holiday in Scotland to call the Education Secretary for a chat.

A school that performed as ineptly as this would be placed in special measures. If Williamson were to risk a “robust” defence of himself it could only be along the lines of the wider ineptitude of his department, of Ofqual, of educationalists, statisticians, politicians, the country at large.

Of course his (and their) belief that predictive grades could not be taken at face value was a sound one. But the algorithm Ofqual came-up with was patently Beta-minus. A system that cannot adequately take account of the performance of gifted children at under-performing schools or provide proper guidance to schools about how “mocks” should be calibrated, or indeed what to do about those schools that do not set mocks at all, was clearly a mechanism for injustice. In any case, as the financial services legal disclaimer rightly puts it, “past performance is not a guide to future results.”

A school that performed as ineptly as this would be placed in special measures

It may be that as a result of this fiasco Ofqual suffers the fate of Public Health England. But it is a Secretary of State’s job to probe, to assess, and to weigh-up alternatives rather than take whatever half-baked piece of coding is proffered. And when a looming disaster is in plain view it is this captain’s job to swing the ship’s wheel as decisively and as early as possible.

In seeking to defend the shambles over which he has presided, Williamson was at pains today to mention that “we came up with the system [of calculated grades] that was broadly supported.” Indeed so. Where were the politicians who back in March protested long and loud against the cancellation of this year’s school exams and the subsequent system of calculated grades? The governments – none of them Tory – of the devolved authorities embarked upon minor variations of the same error.

But England’s disaster could yet have been averted before the A-level results were posted. Those gifted with the necessary intellectual curiosity had access to evidence and argument that clearly showed Ofqual’s algorithm was likely to be about as accurate as Professor Neil Ferguson’s Covid-death extrapolations.

The most damning evidence was from University College London’s Institute of Education which published research that, it said, showed “predicting A-level grades is a near-impossible task.” Using data from almost 240,000 past GCSE results and weighing for socio-economic factors as a means of predicting subsequent A-level performance did not work. Only a quarter of the pupils’ best thee A-levels were predicted correctly.  Earlier research this year by Dr Gill Wyness showed that only 16 percent of university applicants were correctly predicted across their best three A-levels. Three-quarters of them were over-predicted. Those predicted below their subsequent performance were high-achievers from modest backgrounds.

There was time to signal a U-turn before the damage was done. Instead, by waiting until after the algorithm-adjusted results were pushed through letter-boxes the length and breadth of England (despite the advance warning from Scotland’s epic stramash) the Department of Education inflicted upon tens of thousands of teenagers (and their parents) five days of anguish in which many believed their chance of a good university education and all that would flow from it was gone.

For many of them, today’s U-turn may not be a case of all’s well that ends well. Receiving rejections from their first-choice universities, some duly settled for lesser alternatives. They must wait to see how readily they can welch out of one agreement and try to re-negotiate a lost offer and whether first choice universities now still have the capacity to take them this year or will have to offer them a deferred place for 2021. What are they to do meanwhile? Thanks to Covid, it is not as if there are teenage-friendly jobs aplenty to tide them over.

The Conservatives have crafted a seemingly contradictory result, sealing-in the instinctive animosity of university-aspiring young people who believe the Government tried to rob them of their true worth whilst, by U-turning too late, lumbering universities with trying to accommodate the reality of a distorting grade inflation caused by relying on teachers’ predictions. There should be an “A” in the post for that level of achievement.

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