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The A-Level Results Are Class Politics

This year the Tories have turned England's A-levels into a postcode lottery, further disadvantaging working-class youth. If students want justice they will need to follow their Scottish counterparts – and fight back.

As A-Level students up and down the country queued anxiously for their results, the despondency in the air was palpable. One number hung on every student’s lips – 40%. Nearly half of the grades awarded had been downgraded from teacher assessment: for many students, a single letter is all that stood between their ability to follow their dreams or to have them crushed through no fault of their own.

When it became clear that the A-Level and GCSE exams would not be going ahead, schools were asked to provide a teacher-predicted grade and a numerical ranking for each student in each exam. With some disparity between the grades put forward by teachers and the distribution of grades desired by the exam boards, the Tories sided with their predetermined distribution, with only a certain percentage of candidates allowed to achieve each grade. 

At a stroke, this rendered the teacher prediction almost entirely meaningless, leaving only the ranking of students to assign grades. By squeezing these students into a narrow and rigid distribution, the algorithm created a cascade effect. If a student predicted an A* is moved into the A range, they occupy that space, meaning that a student predicted an A must be moved down into the B range, and so on. 

The other key factor of grades were the historical results of the exam centre. Schools with a history of success were more likely to have higher grades accepted than those that have historically struggled, immediately voiding all progress made by these institutions this year.

As with every policy put forward by this government, the impact was not felt equally around the country. The ‘impartial’ algorithm put forward to moderate the grades set across the country was anything but impartial – it has done nothing but entrench the inequality already running rampant through our education system. 

In a stunning attempt to justify their actions, Ofqual admitted that pupils from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were more likely to have seen a downward adjustment in their grades while insisting there was “no evidence of systematic bias.” By adding such a huge weighting to the previous exam results, an attempt to navigate the pandemic became a clumsy postcode lottery, and students were rewarded or penalised based on their surroundings, not their ability. 

Not only is this deeply problematic and damaging on a moral level, it also fails to make logical sense. Any experienced teacher will be able to point to stronger and weaker year groups, yet there is very little evidence to suggest that anything more than the numerical ranking of students was used to influence the final grades – with teacher predictions being roundly ignored. 

This disparity in outcomes is clear by the rise of students achieving A or A* grades – independent schools saw a rise of 4.7%, whereas sixth form colleges saw a rise of 0.3%. The end result of this ‘impartial’ algorithm was that 10.4% of the most disadvantaged students were downgraded as opposed to 8.3% of the least deprived.

Let’s not pretend for one second that this attack on our most vulnerable and disadvantaged students has happened in isolation. It is the culmination of years of removing resources from those who need it most. Schools in the most deprived areas already struggle for funding and staffing. As schools fight for survival, vital support systems have been stripped away. 

Furthermore, changes like as the introduction of Progress 8, new SATS tests, GCSE and A-Level curriculum ‘reforms’, the removal of AS Levels and an attempt to introduce ‘rigour’ to these systems already disproportionately impact the most disadvantaged, who have to work increasingly harder to catch up with their better off peers.

These systemic failings to protect and provide for our most disadvantaged add up to a concerted attack on the most vulnerable students in society. Now, these students have found their futures stripped away from them based on nothing but an algorithm and its creators’ biases against the already disadvantaged.

Those of us who work in education are all too aware of the gap between state schools and private schools. As their funding is reduced, state schools have been increasingly unable to provide anything near the same level of opportunity to their students as the substantially better resourced private system.

This has manifested in higher predicted grades for private schools, who routinely overinflate their predicted grades to ensure access to Russell Group universities, as well as better interview preparation and access to work experience that state school pupils could only dream of.

Amidst this backdrop, the systematic overvaluation of grades from the private sector feels nothing more than discrimination against students from poorer backgrounds. The human cost of today’s farce must be remembered. A cursory scroll through Twitter today revealed heartbreaking story after heartbreaking story of students being told they had failed to meet the entry criteria for their university options. 

I cannot help but think of my own students and the look of bewilderment and betrayal on their faces when they compared their teacher assessed grades to the ones given to them by the exam boards. Never before has the machine been so obvious in its disregard for our students. We are left with young people who have had their futures cruelly snatched away from them through no fault of their own.

It is my deepest hope that our students look at their peers in Scotland for inspiration. Despite a much smaller reduction in their grades, Scottish students effectively forced the government to back down and award them their teacher predictions.

There is simply no other measure that can rectify this grave mistake. The use of mock exam grades as a ‘triple lock’ is incredibly misleading – any student will be able to point out inconsistencies as to the content of mocks and the grade boundaries used, and to assume a mock reflects a student’s best work is laughably naive.

The solution is simple. Trust the teachers who have used their expertise, knowledge of their students and understanding of the curriculum to provide accurate, fair grades for their students.

The National Education Union has once again taken bold action and steps to challenge the government on the outcomes of their discriminatory policies. It would be wise for the Labour Party to follow suit and launch a full-throated defence of our young people and teachers, after having failed to do so during the pandemic.

As a nation, we need to consider the nature and purpose of our education system. For months, teachers have been urged to sacrifice themselves to get the economy going, and attacked for “letting down” the disadvantaged students for whom school is a vital source of support.

Yet the government’s attitude is apathetic at best towards those very same students. We know that the current system reinforces inequality, and that the excessive focus on exams, results and data stifles the creativity and potential of our students. 

While today has been a huge injustice and far less equal than the system we’re used to, we should be under no illusions that our normal education system is an equal or fair one. We need to start moving away from exam factories and towards a model of education that brings out the best in our students, rather than reducing them to a singular grade.

These results have demonstrated that our current system is simply not fit for purpose – let this be the start of a new conversation.