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More than Letters on a Page: What the A-Level Fiasco Reveals

Image: Andre Hunter (2018)

This week, A-Level Results Day consolidated classism as part of the government’s core curriculum. The New Statesman reports, the share of A-level grades at A and above rose by 4.7% in private schools but by a mere 0.3% at colleges and sixth forms. The harrowing accounts of Free School Meals students and first-generation applicants having their Oxbridge and Russell Group offers shredded by a crude and arbitrary postcode lottery have been widely circulated. Anticipating the justifiably high number of appeals and resit requests which will soon be bursting through Ofqual’s doors, the government has pledged to cover the cost, a promise with a potential price tag of £15 million.

Almost 40% of A-level grades were downgraded from teachers’ predictions made in Spring. BBC News reports that 3% of entries were lowered by two grades. Although national results show record highs for A and A* grades, their distribution is certainly concentrated in wealthier areas, where fee-paying students reside.

That’s where the anger emanates from. Through relying heavily on the history of a school’s performance, the government appear to have used an algorithm which has operated like an impersonal sorting hat. Therefore, if you happen to be a high achiever at a typically low achieving school or college in a poor catchment area, you are by extension labelled less deserving of success, given that the attainment of top grades at your school or college is historically below average. When the logic behind this algorithm is spelt out plainly, it’s no wonder that teachers – whose professional judgement has been placed in disrepute – and students at all levels have demanded a free, fair and accessible appeals system.

By default, the fallout from this year’s A-levels chaos can be seen as both a product and reinforcement of the north-south divide which has beleaguered the British education system for several years. In 2016, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw stated “the people of Manchester and Liverpool and the north of England are not being treated fairly… their children have less of a chance of educational success than children south of the Wash.” In a report of the same year, figures revealed that 72% of secondary schools in the North and Midlands were rated good or outstanding compared to 84% in the South. In real numbers, this meant that 135,000 more secondary school children were being taught in under-performing schools above Birmingham than below it.

It seems that although private fee-paying schools are equally distributed across the country to meet demand, high quality state schools are not. Using the same algorithm to standardise GCSE results later this week is therefore likely to create a similar sense of hurt and confusion.

This is an issue which cuts across class and regional lines. It demonstrates that Conservative governments, despite having ten years in office, have yet to grapple with the proper resourcing, support and funding of all state schools, regardless of their postcode. That’s why recent developments have placed the role of private schools into higher relief. Would parents dedicate huge proportions of their income towards such an education if it didn’t confer an unfair advantage? This is why universities ought to the honour their offers to state school applicants who have been unduly downgraded by a system which simply cannot accurately contextualise every student’s prior academic success.

Boris Johnson’s defence of the algorithm as a guarantor of “robust” and “dependable” results is therefore trite and misleading. A 4% disparity in the number of top grades between non-selective sixth forms and fee-paying independent schools actually implies that robustness and dependability is instead tangential to wealth, class and hometown in the eyes of Britain’s government.

The discriminatory nature of this has caught the attention of the Good Law Project, a progressive non-profit organisation which has commenced legal action against Ofqual. This needn’t be required if the government reviewed its approach and considered alternative steps to remedy the hurt caused.

And of course, the A Level fiasco has demonstrated that Covid-19 is not a great leveller. Even in the realm of education, it has proven that it disproportionately affects those from a poorer, working class background. A public health crisis needn’t have such a dramatic impact on educational outcomes but in a society already hampered by gross inequality it is almost inevitable. Despite this, Johnson’s predominantly privately educated Cabinet has had five months to find a workable alternative to award by assessment. What it has produced points to laziness, ignorance and disarray. To be sure, there was never going to be an easy way to find said alternative, but Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings and Gavin Williamson have truly surpassed themselves: A*s all round for ineptitude.

Edited by Ellie Muir

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