|Volume 50 Number 32, August 22, 2020||ARCHIVE||HOME||JBCENTRE||SUBSCRIBE|
The debacle over the awarding of grades to A-Level students in the conditions of the pandemic has shown both that the government has no concern for the rights and humanity of the people, particularly the youth, and that the students have been inspired to act in their own name and defend both their own future and the character and values of a modern education system. Students took to the streets at many places around Britain over the awarding of deflated grades through an algorithm. In London, on August 19, students demonstrated outside Downing Street and at Parliament Square. A further demonstration is due to take place on Saturday, August 22, at Marble Arch at 1pm. A rally also took place in Newcastle on August 19 (see article below).
The collective stand of the mass of students, including the threat of legal action, exposed the callous position of the government in relying on an algorithm to over-ride the teacher-assessed grades which were necessary with exams prevented because of the pandemic. This is a victory for the angered students, but it also exposes the problems at the heart of the education system which the pandemic has revealed starkly. It has underlined how the right to an education must be fought for.
The government had thought that it could ride roughshod over the right to higher education of A-Level students because of the conditions of the pandemic. The students have demonstrated that the pandemic cannot be used as a justification to play fast and loose with the lives of young people.
In fact, the battle continues, since in the time between the downgraded results of the Ofqual algorithm being announced and the government backing down, students have been making other arrangements to secure places at universities that were not their first choice. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson on August 17 confirmed that a cap on the number of students who can be accepted by universities would be lifted, but universities require the funding to take extra students. In addition, the government, and the Education Secretary in particular, refuse to be held accountable for the fiasco, which has demonstrated the disregard of those in authority for the future of the lives of young people as well as the attempt to negate the human factor. The demand now is that university places be found for all students who need them.
The algorithm meant that as many as 40% of students had their results downgraded from the grades that were predicted by their schools. The algorithm disproportionately downgraded students in low-performing state schools, usually in the most deprived areas. While private schools saw a 4.7% increase in the number of students who received an A or above compared to last year, secondary comprehensive schools saw just a 2% increase and academies saw only a 1.7% increase. Extraordinarily, over 21,000 students got awarded a U grade, which is usually given to students who do not turn up to the exam or write anything in the exam.
In an article "Government must listen to teachers or face recurring chaos" written for Schools Week, Alison Peacock, CEO of the Chartered College of Teaching, points out: "Lack of equity within our society has been starkly brought into relief as we have collectively tried to respond to lockdown. The harsh impact of Covid-19 particularly for some areas experiencing disadvantage has been shown through the death rates published by the Office of National Statistics. Often these areas map directly on to those where schools are working against the odds to support their students. In too many cases, students in these schools risked being the ones most unfairly caught out by system-level moderation solutions. Did the government really believe that teachers and young people would stand by and let this happen?"
It has been reported that Gavin Williamson was warned six weeks ago that the A-level and GCSE grading system used in the absence of this year's exams could lead to thousands of students being given the discriminatory results. A senior source at the Department for Education told The Times that Sir Jon Coles, a former director-general for standards, wrote to the Education Secretary to express his concerns over the Ofqual algorithm. He is said to have told the Cabinet minister that the model applied to A-Level and GCSE grades would only be "75% accurate", which would affect hundreds of thousands of students. In the event, Ofqual's own analysis acknowledged that the model had predictive accuracy of around 60%.
MPs on the the Education Select Committee in early July had also warned the Department for Education: "We are extremely concerned that Ofqual's standardisation model does not appear to include any mechanism to identify whether groups such as BAME pupils, FSM [free school meal] eligible pupils, children looked after, and pupils with SEND [special educational needs] have been systematically disadvantaged by calculated grades."
As with every issue during this pandemic, in particular the issue of the safe opening of schools, the necessity for those concerned to be involved in the decision-making process, and indeed their right to be involved, has been ignored or negated. And as with the issue of the safe opening of schools and the implementation of online learning, for example, the right for teachers, lecturers, students and others affected by what is decided to be involved, together with the procedure for deciding which students go on to university or further education, has raised the question of the character of education itself, and the participation of the students themselves in working this out.
The issue has also raised the question of how education should be funded, in particular the funding for higher and further education. There is a necessity for a turning point in the financing of education. The whole issue of the character, values and funding of further and higher education shows the need for a public discussion on how to solve the issues. It has been the case for some time, with the increase of the anti-social offensive, that all sectors of an all-round education to prepare the coming generation to take up its responsibility for society have been under attack, especially the humanities. In addition, the imposition of fees, with students being saddled with a life-time of debt, is being challenged. It is particularly galling for the disadvantaged who, with working people as a whole, have been treated with contempt by the ruling elite.
Despite the government's humiliation in this grading fiasco, it is refusing to be accountable, as with many other issues where it has shown itself culpable. This is unacceptable, and points to the need for mechanisms to be built to render accountable those who claim to represent the electorate. What the upsurge in the students has shown is that the movements of the people to fight for their rights is growing, and that this resistance must assume an organisational and political direction. We congratulate the whole student body in what has been accomplished in taking up this challenge, and their fight to implement the principle that education is a right.