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The Right Place at the Wrong Time?

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By Owen North.

On Monday the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced a screeching U-turn on how pupils in England will have their GCSE awards graded.

These circumstances were foreshadowed by similar blunders from his counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Pupils awards in England, and the devolved nations alike, were to be based on algorithms which hindered students not based on their own merits but on their schools ‘historic performance’. A situation which was, rightly, lambasted for being grossly unfair.

Now, Pupils results will be based on ‘teachers’ assessment’.

The trouble is that the results which teachers had predicted were, as the First Minister of Scotland had said (and got a lot of flak for doing so), not credible. The reason being is that they resulted in a situation in which the pass rate year on year was greatly inflated, to a point where the results being dished out ended up being implausibly high.

This is why the “moderation process” was deemed to be necessary in the first place.

In Scotland, under teacher estimates introduced after the cancellation of exams, the Higher pass rate will soar by 14 percentage points from last year, thus bringing the Higher Pass rate to an unprecedented 88%.

South of the border, similar results emerge with the proportion of grades being marked as A* or A reaching a record 38%, up from 25% on the previous year.

That’s not to say that teachers, taken individually, are wrong for doling out the predicted grades that they did. Teachers make predictions of their student’s grades based on what they believe their students are capable of if they apply themselves to their given subject (they tend to veer on the side of optimism).

The trouble is many don’t, to put it bluntly. Which is why predicted grades on the whole so often fail to materialise.

An analysis from the University and College Union of the results of 1.3 million young people over a three-year period discovered that only 16% of University applicants achieve the grades that their teachers predict.

It is curious, that those who were most frustrated with this debacle (aside from some of the students themselves, who were unfairly penalised) is the Lockdown Zealots – the most vociferous of which is Piers Morgan, though the competition is fierce.

He blasted the Education Secretary as a “mug” and a “blathering obfuscating buffoon”. He has referred to the government’s handling of this fiasco as incompetent. He’s right, it was.

However, in fairness, these are unprecedented circumstances. This is uncharted territory. Even during both World Wars, the exams still went ahead.

The predicament Williamson found himself in was precipitated by the government’s decision to close schools and cancel exam results in March. These were the cards he was dealt.

It is worth remembering that in March, Piers Morgan was rebuking the government for being one of the few in Europe at that time that had attempted to keep schools open, “what is the logic” he exclaimed.

“What is the logic behind saying we don’t want people gathering in large numbers but still having a situation where twice a day hundreds of parents and nannies all congregate with many kids who will probably be carrying this without much of a problem, but may then be affecting the adults?”

– Piers Morgan, in March.

Now, did the Education Secretary play these cards well, or as well as he could have given the circumstances? No, not in my view, particularly because he didn’t stick to his guns. Whatever the education secretary’s judgement he should have made it, with careful deliberation, and then executed it without hesitation.

Not to mention he should have had the foresight to see the writing on the wall in Scotland, which ought to have given him time to prepare.

“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”

 ― Otto von Bismarck

But who knows, perhaps this is what he intended to do but he then found himself having his judgement curtailed and his hand forced by the Prime Minister in response to the bitter public backlash? That’s certainly possible.

The task Williamson had set out for him was a precarious one, none of the options he had on the table were entirely fair to all. That’s the nature of what is essentially making up results.

On the one hand, if he is too lenient, by taking teachers unfettered predicted grades and running with those (the approach he has now been pressured into taking), the grades will lose their value. Which isn’t fair to those who really deserved them.

Not to mention the other adverse effects this course of action is going to have. For one it will put severe strain on Universities, which will have to cope with a much greater influx of students than anticipated, given the generous results which students have been awarded.

As Dr Tim Bradshaw, Chief Executive of the Russel Group, warned:

“There are limits to what can be done by the university sector alone to address that uncertainty without stretching resources to the point that it undermines the experience for all, not to mention ensuring students and staff are kept safe as we follow the steps needed to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

But on the other hand, if he was too harsh, he’d have decimated the prospects of bright children from underperforming schools simply because of their postcode. Take the case of Olivia Biggart, a bright pupil from North Lanarkshire (this example comes from Scotland but the principle is the same) who got straight “A’s” in her mock exams yet, despite that, ended up being awarded two As and three Bs for- seemingly- no other reason than where she lives. This left her Medical dream, as she put it ‘in tatters’.

The triple lock, to me, seemed like a fair compromise. It ended up raising the overall pass rate-while not making the jump implausible- allowing more people than ever before to attend University (although some may question whether or not that is a good thing in and of itself). Importantly, it provided safeguards for those whose grades had been unfairly marked down by allowing pupils to revert to the grades they gained in their mock exam results (which would have served students like Olivia well) or alternatively even resit the exams in the Autumn to gain a better result and prove the system wrong.

Again It wasn’t perfect – by any stretch – but it is telling that none of the journalists in the mainstream press or any members from the Labour frontbenches or the Tory backbenches, which berated these proposals from the Education so scathingly, provided any alternative means of their own as to how they would have handled this predicament.

I, for one, am not convinced his critics would’ve handled this fiasco any better than he did.

It seems Williamson was in the right place at the wrong time.

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