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How Students Beat the System in 2020

This year, students exposed the myth of England's 'meritocratic' education system and overturned the government's A Level results. But dealing with the class divides in our schools will be a far longer struggle.

It’s a British tradition that every year, in mid-August, smug, financially secure grownups logjam social media with vapid platitudes about how individual character and hard graft got them to where they are today. They do so to reassure young people across the country ahead of receiving their A-level results that three or four letter grades on a piece of paper will not define you for life: if Richard Branson can build a $4.6 billion business empire having left school with no qualifications, then you needn’t worry about a poxy certificate either.

Every year these tired clichés are wheeled out, and every year they do little to salve the crushing disappointment felt by pupils whose grades fall short of what they hoped. But in 2020, more than any other year, this shallow line was exposed as futile.

Following the cancellation of exams due to the coronavirus pandemic, teenagers’ results in England were taken out of their hands and processed by education secretary Gavin Williamson’s faceless algorithm, which spat out A-level grades for them based on a combination of teachers’ rankings and the previous attainment levels at their school. When the ill-advised scheme resulted in disproportionate numbers of pupils from the poorest areas of the country and the most disadvantaged backgrounds receiving grades significantly below those predicted, it confirmed the myth of our supposedly meritocratic education system.

To put it another way, as pupils missed out on university and further education places rewarded instead to more affluent pupils whose grades were not so detrimentally impacted, it proved that three or four letter grades on a piece of paper absolutely can define you for life.

This glaring misstep by the Tory government in England was not suffered by pupils across the devolved nations. Education authorities in Scotland and Wales opted to reward pupils grades based on predictions and assessments by their classroom teachers (called ‘centre-assessed grades’), surely those best-placed to make that call under these exceptional circumstances.

A U-turn was forced thanks to a chorus of outrage from teachers and education sector unions and, most importantly, the concerted and targeted protests of an exceptionally switched-on and web-savvy generation of young people. One week on from the initial fiasco, Williamson and Ofqual climbed down and apologised for the upset.

Looking back over the year, we should celebrate this moment as a successful application of pressure on the government. Students, teachers and unions forced it to back down on a policy that would have had detrimental impact on the future of thousands of working-class young people. But significantly, it’s not the only instance in which Boris Johnson’s administration has bowed over its maltreatment of the youth this year.

Since it was revealed in September that more than 1 million new applications had been made for free school meals, Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford has repeatedly led efforts to push the government to ensure the poorest children still had access to food through intermittent lockdowns and disruptive school holidays. The government eventually relented and provided £170 million to local authorities to provide meals during the Christmas holidays.

These are victories worth embracing, especially given the absurdity of having to push so hard to convince an administration that every child deserves a good meal and decent prospects, which exposes the flagrant, vicious contempt for the working class that sits at the core of Tory policy. But there is more to do.

Clearly, the Tories’ U-turn did not completely address the damage done by Williamson’s initial misstep. Thanks to the delay between the initial algorithmic results and their corrective, swathes of initially downgraded pupils missed out on university places as courses filled up with their less-affected contemporaries. This happened despite the new teacher-approved grades generally meaning those impacted pupils did receive the results they needed to get in.

Our society insists that a university education is the best route for those from disadvantaged backgrounds to become socially mobile (and, indeed, that social mobility is the best way to address economic and social disparities). This clutch of prospective students now faces either a year out followed by increased competition with a whole new cohort of applicants next year, or loses out on a university education entirely and is therefore resigned to the supposed societal scrapheap.

Even with the increased equity granted by centre-assessed grades, analysis of the final A level results by the Education Policy Institute exposes the ongoing attainment gap between pupils of differing demographics in the state school system. This year, the proportion of pupils attending predominantly working-class comprehensives who received an A grade or above rose by 2%. Compare this to those who attended independent schools, an enclave favoured by faux-conscientious middle-class parents, where the number jumped by 5%. More affluent pupils are still receiving greater support and resources to fuel their attainment, and centre-assessed grades are evidently not the solution.

The government is currently running a National Tutoring Programme with £350 million ring-fenced to fund more individualised or small-group ‘catch-up’ learning for disadvantaged pupils. As it stands, this programme is only earmarked to last for one year before the money vanishes, and it does not as yet extend to pupils in sixth forms and further education colleges.

Gavin Williamson’s narrative of the chaos surrounding A Level results is that it is a blip during an unprecedented year — that minor adjustments and temporary catch-up measures are all that’s needed to right the ship. He knows this is false, not least because a plan for next year’s A Level and GCSE examinations still has yet to be confirmed.

Across all pupil age groups, the pandemic has left the generation-spanning inequalities and injustices in our schools unavoidably exposed. These are wounds that cannot be fixed with a simple bandage. Our education system is out of balance.

We must make a case for a new way forward — a state education system that encourages children to be curious, critical thinkers, provides them safety and sustenance, gives extra educational and pastoral support where needed, and nurtures individual talents and interests regardless of background.

This is all entirely possible, but it’s not a quick fix. Our fight is not just with one Tory administration, but an entrenched system. We must push to rebuild it, so that, one day, three or four letter grades on a piece of paper really don’t have to define a child for life.