Lancaster in northwest England is famed for its large university and higher education colleges that bring some 20,000 students every autumn. In a normal year come early September, the pedestrianised streets of the city centre here — and cities and towns up and down the United Kingdom — would be buzzing with students getting to know its hostelries and hip hangout spots, eager to get to work on their new studies.
But this year, things are different. Coronavirus may well limit all but the most socially uninhibited from the most exuberant excesses of fresher week. And the pandemic has changed the very nature of third-level education — fundamentally who attends what university if at all.
And the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been forced into a very public U-turn on its plans for school grades — leaving Education Secretary Gavin Williamson with a failing grade, the entire cabinet with a report card that urges them to do much better as the British public wonder just how things went so badly wrong.
Earlier this week, the UK government caved in to pressure and widespread student protests over its school exam grading system. At the very heart of the plan was — go figure — an algorithm that downgraded the results awarded to students in England after their tests were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Students in the UAE, Australia, India and Pakistan affected
Normally, the annual summer exams sat by secondary school students in the UK determine what courses and universities those going on to higher level education can take. But the exam system is also used by schools around the world that follow the UK curriculum and system, with this debacle touching students in the UAE, Australia, India, Pakistan and across much of the Middle East and Asia.
But this year, there weren’t to be any examinations: The British government cancelled them because of health risks and instead, because education is a devolved responsibility, ordered officials in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, to have teachers award grades, with those marks then reviewed comparing them to previous results.
With the fiascos unfolding and reversed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Williamson said there would be no such similar U-turn in England when the results came out.
Already, the system had created mayhem when results were sent out to pupils in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with the ministries there quickly and awkwardly rescinded the reviews and reverting to the teacher-only grades.
Those climb downs should have provided sufficient warning for Williamson and officials in England, that chaos was in the offing once students ripped open their results envelopes.
For days, the government hunkered down against criticism after the mathematical model used to assess grade predictions made by teachers lowered those grades for almost 40 per of students.
University admissions at stake
That process led many students to lose places at top universities. And the universities themselves were left trying to sort out the mess caused by the confusion and uncertainty — on top of not knowing quite how many students they could physically cater for in classes, lecture halls, laboratories and facilities that were limited by social-distancing rules.
Coronavirus too has led to a significant drop in the number of overseas students attending UK universities this September — meaning a loss in some cases of a quarter of the total fees received by the institutions.
Adding insult to injury, results show that grades were less likely to be lowered for students who attended fee-paying private schools, while bright students at traditionally poorly performing schools could have results downgraded.
Why? The algorithm used looked at the post codes of previous successful students — meaning that if you’re bright but from a socially deprived area, your marks would be reviewed lower.
As one student’s placard noted at one of many of the protests: ‘No Etonians were harmed in the making of this algorithm’.
Anything that could go wrong in this mess did indeed go wrong.
With the fiascos unfolding and reversed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Williamson said there would be no such similar U-turn in England when the results came out — he had every confidence in the process he and his officials had designed.
They [the students] would have liked to have been fairly judged on their academic work, not on an algorithm that adjusted their results on the basis of where they live, their parent’s socioeconomic standing, nor on the past results of other students...
The results in England were issued last Friday morning. By Saturday evening the exams regulator published guidance on an appeals process. By Saturday night, it withdrew that advice.
By Sunday morning, Barrister Jo Maugham said his Good Law Project had appointed solicitors to pursue litigation on behalf of students, and urged the government to launch a suitable appeals system in time for students to go to college in September.
By noon on Sunday, Robert Halfon, chairman of the cross-party education select committee in parliament and a lawmaker in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservatives described the removal of the appeals guidance as farcical.
Exams review board blamed
Williamson blamed the fiasco on the exams review board. The howls of protest continued, with even Conservative MPs furious over the debacle on a bread-and-butter issue that reaches if not into every home then certainly into most families and every street in their constituencies.
On Monday, Williamson made his U-turn — students are to be awarded the grade that their teachers had predicted for them based on past performance.
“I am sorry for the distress this has caused young people and their parents, but hope this announcement will now provide the certainty and reassurance they deserve,” Williamson said.
A snap opinion poll by YouGov showed 75 per cent of respondents thought the government had handled the situation badly. Around 40 thought Williamson should resign, a suggestion that a less than contrite Williamson batted aside:
“I think what those youngsters wanted to see was action being taken.”
Teacher-grading system works
Actually, what students would have liked was to sit their exams. When that wasn’t possible — the government bungled the whole process of trying to reopen schools in England in May after the lockdown — students would have liked to know the assurances they were given, that the teacher-grading system would work, would indeed be so.
And they would have liked to have been fairly judged on their academic work, not on an algorithm that adjusted their results on the basis of where they live, their parent’s socioeconomic standing, nor on the past results of other students who might or might not have studied at their respective secondary schools. Better still, they would have liked to be judged for class work, not penalised for being working class.