Picture this, for a minute: you wake up on the morning of A-level results day. For the past two years, you’ve attended every class, done all your work and then some, and been working solidly towards your three As, achieving them routinely on every past paper for the last three months or so of college. Then you find out that you’ve been given a B and two Cs instead, and every plan you have falls to pieces.
Such was the reality for thousands of students on Thursday who never had the chance to prove otherwise. While government spokespeople crowded the airwaves with talk of how the moderation process was fair since A-level results were 2% up on last year and that they’d brought in a ‘triple-lock’ system – which doesn’t even work – to ensure the right grades were handed out, the reality on the ground was panic and, overwhelmingly, disappointment.
The stats paint a bleak picture. 39% of grades were downgraded from the predictions. Although the proportion of students receiving an A or A* rose by 2.3%, when broken down by the type of institution the classism inherent to British education is laid bare. In private schools this was 4.7%, whereas in state comprehensives it was 2% and in state sixth form colleges it was a mere 0.6%. There appears to be a contradiction here – if results rose across the board, then why are so many feeling hard done by?
Since it was decided that exams would not be sat this year, Ofqual, the body that handles exam moderation in England, and the Department for Education, had a summer to decide how best to hand out grades for A-levels and GCSEs. With AS levels and coursework scrapped in almost all subjects by Michael Gove’s reforms, the DfE had no actual data to go on, only predictions. Their solution, therefore, was to take those predictions and use an algorithm to try and fit them to a statistical model of what the results should look like, moderating based on past results at that school or college and a ranking of the students in the class.
This is where the problems stem from – this algorithm ensures that students at schools with lower historical results cannot attain any higher than those results. And of course, schools with lower results tend to be the chronically underfunded state comprehensives in disadvantaged communities. From the start, this process was designed to enforce the class system.
At the heart of the issue is the disconnect between what the algorithm says is fair and what an actual person feels is fair. According to the algorithm, awarding a good student at a poorly performing centre an A and two Bs is fair, because the best student last year got three Bs. But if that student thinks they should have got three As instead, they feel the decision is unfair. Normally, exam results are there to provide the proof that a given result is an accurate reflection of a student’s abilities, but in their absence any legitimacy is stripped away. The decision to remove coursework and AS levels, staking everything on one set of exams, has come back to bite us on a monumental scale. However, there are issues beyond the sorry state of affairs that are this year’s results – if the system was fair in the first place, the algorithm would be significantly fairer.
The problem with results in any case is that it’s so blindingly obvious to many that they would have been given a better result if they went to a different school – this year only differs in that it’s more obvious. Even in normal circumstances, it’s obvious that students from wealthier backgrounds get better results – they can afford a well-funded private school, the cost of tuition to get into a selective school, or the price of living in an area with higher performing comprehensives.
When results are awarded directly based purely on attending a better school, it shows how wrong the system is in the first place. Why should the poorest students be prevented from achieving the best results? Why do we accept this in so-called ‘normal’ circumstances in the first place? The disaster that has unfolded this week should be a lesson to reform our education system so that disadvantaged students don’t have to suffer a lifelong setback through no fault of their own.
The gap needs to be closed between the private schools and the comprehensives by making money-loaded private schools actually pay tax and using it to fund state schools. In the meantime, the British Government should follow the example of the Scottish and reinstate the teacher predictions before the GCSE results come out and the sorry saga repeats itself. The students of 2020 have suffered enough.
Image: Number 10 via Flickr