Boris Johnson retreats in a U.K. exam debacle
By Stephen Castle
Barraged by protests from angry teachers, parents and students, the British government has abandoned the improvised college-entrance exam system it cobbled together for schools in England after the pandemic made traditional testing impossible.
Critics said the government’s approach discriminated against economically disadvantaged students — and pointed to the results as proof. When they were released, tens of thousands of students learned that their preliminary grades had been lowered.
On Monday, after insisting it would not make changes to the complex grading system, the government scrapped it completely.
“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,” the British education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said in a statement. He said it had been “an extraordinarily difficult year for young people.”
It was the latest policy reversal from a government already much criticized for its handling of the coronavirus. It was also a fresh setback for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who bowed to overwhelming political pressure to retreat, agreeing to the shift during talks by phone from a vacation in Scotland and then leaving it to his education secretary to make the apologies.
The problem began after Britain went into lockdown and schools were closed to most pupils. That made it impossible to hold the standardized examinations, known as A-levels, that are the main factor in determining college entrance.
Instead, teachers provided predicted scores based on students’ previous work and practice A-levels. These estimates were then reviewed by an education regulator, Ofqual, which used an algorithm that took into account each school’s past exam performance.
The architects of this system regarded teachers as generally too optimistic about the prospects of their students. Accepting teachers’ predictions at face value, regulators worried, could lead to “grade inflation.”
When the review was over, around 40% of the predicted grades — around 280,000 in all — were downgraded. Only about 2% of marks increased.
The main victims, said critics, were bright pupils from less affluent backgrounds whose schools had not previously performed well.
On Monday, Williamson agreed to accept teachers’ predictions, acknowledging that “the process of allocating grades has resulted in more significant inconsistencies than can be resolved through an appeals process.”
The same approach will also be adopted for another exam, the GCSE, which is taken by students around age 16. Those results are scheduled to be announced this week.
The decision is likely to be greeted with relief by those who argued that any other course of action would be a betrayal of the prime minister’s promise to “level up” opportunities across Britain.
But the debacle cast a harsh light on the competence of a government widely criticized for its slowness to order a coronavirus lockdown, for delays in setting up its track-and-trace system, and for an erratic approach to quarantine rules for those arriving in the country.
Under Johnson’s leadership, Britain has suffered one of the sharpest economic contractions in Europe, as well as one of its highest death tolls from the pandemic.
A previous plan to get most younger children back to school in England before the summer break was abandoned, and the furor over examinations bears many of the hallmarks of a government slow to identify looming problems or even to recognize the warning signs of a political crisis.
In this case, Johnson initially defended the algorithmic review system as “robust” and “dependable,” despite the immediate outcry, and even when Scotland reversed course after similar protests last week.
Over the weekend, Williamson insisted that there would be “no U-turn, no change.”
Guidance on how to appeal the downgraded examination results was withdrawn only hours after it was issued, compounding the confusion.
“Incompetence has become this government’s watchword,” said Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, in a Twitter post.
Yet the pressure also came from Conservative lawmakers who believe that young people have suffered significantly from the lockdown and that downgrading so many results was simply unfair.
“This group of young people have lost out on so much already, we must ensure that bright, capable students can progress on their next step,” wrote one government minister, Penny Mordaunt, on Twitter.
The conservative-leaning Daily Telegraph newspaper was scathing in an editorial, declaring that “the exams fiasco in England beggars belief, given the time authorities have had to prepare.”
“Even if they had failed to do so until recently, they were given a clear warning signal from Scotland that a storm was looming,” the editorial said. “Yet, rather than change tack, they sailed straight into it with calamitous consequences.”
Before the government backed down on the exams Monday, one veteran Conservative politician and former education secretary, Kenneth Baker, warned that the crisis risked alienating not just those young people deprived of college places but also their parents, grandparents, friends and relatives.
“The damage is absolutely enormous,” Baker, now a member of the House of Lords, told Times Radio.