19 August 2020

Accepting teachers’ grades doesn’t solve the problems – it shifts them

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“A week is a long time in politics” – but it will have felt even longer for those in education, waiting for crucial exam grades this summer.

The DfE’s pre-emptive attempt to head off the kind of controversy we have seen in Scotland failed, and England joined Scotland (and Wales) in switching to using teacher assessed grades where these are higher than the moderated ones. While moderation is right in principle, it became increasingly clear that many students had lost out far more than seemed sensible. The Ofqual algorithm had failed to pass the smell test. When the only obvious winners were private schools, there’s only one possible conclusion: this stinks.

While much of the media focus has been on A-level students hoping for university places, they are far from the only people affected by the sudden flood of change. Many in the education sector are worried about the groups who haven’t made the headlines who also risk being left behind. For a start, it’s still unclear whether vocational equivalents like BTECs will get the same treatment– and these courses are disproportionately taken by young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. The much promised “parity of esteem” between different routes remains missing in action.

This past week has also been a particularly scary time for young people awaiting tomorrow’s GCSE results. With college places on the line, 16-year-olds have no doubt been watching their older friends and siblings with growing horror, as they were put through a week of painful uncertainty. I remember my own trepidation waiting for results from my first set of important exams. I do not envy the class of 2020.

Fortunately, the government U-turn looks to have spared the GCSE results from the same chaos. It had looked like pupils would get their teacher assessed grades this week, but then official results that might be slightly higher (based on the algorithm) next week. If the algorithm upgraded as many GCSE students as A-level students, this would probably have affected around 100,000 teenagers. But it looks as if final GCSE grades have now been sent to schools with 24 hours to spare  – though some non-GCSE qualifications are definitely delayed by a few days.

So, problem solved? More problem moved. Because the knock-on impact of the shift to teacher assessed grades will be felt elsewhere in the system, away from the headlines.

Firstly, the university admissions system is now a complete mess. Many courses are full, either because the government only funds a set number of places (medicine/dentistry), or because there are only so many students you can fit in a lecture theatre or an accommodation block. Many young people are finding they now have the grades to access their first choice course – but the only way to do so is to accept a place for next year. Given the lack of jobs, it’s not clear if this is actually a helpful offer for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, who may be quite literally unable to afford to wait.

For universities outside of the elite Russell Group, the risks are more existential. These universities are often the insurance choice for people who fall just short in their exams. If no-one has fallen short, and the Russell Group is honouring all its original offers, this is now a much smaller market. And worse, it’s going to take time for the new grades, and revised offers, to work their way into the official UCAS system, so these universities don’t actually know how many students they will be welcoming in September. Such decisions have significant financial implications, and these are not wealthy institutions with enormous endowments. I cannot help but wonder if we should have reset the admissions system when we decided to reset the grades.

We may well see similar issues for sixth forms, colleges, and apprenticeship providers. It will be interesting to see whether the sector can make enough space for all the extra young people who are now qualified for their courses. Supporting teenagers who have been out of education for six months to get back into the routine of study, despite the uncertainty of the pandemic, promises to be a challenge. Will we see an increase in dropout rates, or falls in pass rates in two years’ time? And if we don’t see either of those things, what does that say about the usual approach of not letting people progress if they have just missed out on the grades?

But most overlooked of all is the impact on the class of 2021. They too have watched friends and family go through the chaos. They have missed around 20% of a two-year course and face an uncertain year ahead. Quite what their exams will look like is still up in the air. Their schools and colleges are juggling reopening safely, supporting this year’s leavers, and supporting a bumper crop of incoming students. If they want to go to university next year, they will find more places than normal are already filled – Churchill College, Cambridge is already warning about this. Everyone else affected by this year’s results chaos gets to move on, both literally and metaphorically. The class of 2021 are left behind.

Most people seem pretty happy with the Government’s belated decision, and the media and the politicians have already started to move on to whether Gavin Williamson will survive the next reshuffle. But behind the headlines, the truth is there was no way education was going to escape this pandemic consequence free. For better or worse, we’ve decided to move the pain to a different part of the system. The floodwaters recede and reveal the extent of the devastation left behind. It will take more than one news cycle to clear it up.

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Ben Gadsby is Policy and Research Manager at Impetus, a charity that works to ensure disadvantaged young people succeed in school, in work, and in life.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.