Exams U-turn fixes a political problem for the government but creates many more practical ones


This is a U-turn long in the making but short in the offing.

As recently as Saturday night, government sources were insisting that, without standardisation, they would be fighting accusations of rampant grade inflation and worthless A-levels.

Ultimately though, the alternative was worse.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson may be fearing for his job after the U-turn
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson may be fearing for his job after the U-turn

A barrage of stories about talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds marked down on the basis of historical difficulties in their schools.

Inequalities exacerbated by an algorithm.

Less levelling up, more dragging down.

A toxic legacy for a prime minister who insists he’s determined to expand opportunity.

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Any chance of riding out the crisis was made impossible by a weekend of chaos over the appeals system that infuriated Conservative MPs.

Worry too that the burden of submitting appeals could disrupt schools restarting again next month.

But while this U-turn fixes one political problem for the government, it creates many more practical ones for higher education.

Ofqual apology for grading system which has now been abandoned

Ofqual apologises after exam grades U-turn

For the last four days, universities have been allocating hundreds of thousands of places based on standardised grades.

Students unable to get into their preferred choice have been accepting alternatives via the clearing service.

The government says they will be able to swap back now, but there’s no guarantee the universities will take them.

The cap on student numbers has been lifted to boost capacity but that could lead to some universities losing out if there’s a damaging exodus from their courses.

What’s more, falling back on Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) doesn’t eliminate unfairness from the system.

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Different schools will have graded their students using different methods.

Some may have scored harshly to account for the algorithm.

Others will have been more optimistic.

There will still be an appeals system in place, though it won’t allow challenges on the basis of mocks.

The calculation in Westminster is clearly that shifting accountability for unfairness from ministers to teachers is an easier political sell.

Wales and Northern Ireland have made similar screeching U-turns today.

But given the chaos in Westminster over the past four days, attention will likely focus on the Education Secretary for England Gavin Williamson.

On a briefing call with reporters, he admitted that it was only over the weekend when he became aware of the inequalities being thrown up by the system.

To justify that, blame is being shifted to the exams regulator Ofqual with the under-fire cabinet minister saying he had been reassured by them at every stage that the process was fair.

But after what happened in Scotland, the fact that no one noticed this political juggernaut coming – and that no one has lost their job as a result – will leave many astounded.

Students across the UK may feel more comfortable with their career prospects this evening.

Gavin Williamson probably doesn’t.

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