Too Little, Too Late: the UK Government finally gets A-level results policy right

August 30, 2020

I feel confident to say that I am not the only PPE student that thoroughly enjoyed watching the BBC’s The Thick of It. The arguments, the chaos, the incompetence: a dramatised peek into the hectic and dysfunctional life of Government departments in Whitehall. It is hard not to become immersed in the storylines as you find yourself questioning whether, in reality, serious decisions are so rushed or whether ministers really do make policies up on the spot.

 

Well, following the recent chaos surrounding the Department for Education’s (DfE) policy on determining the 2020 A-level results, more and more fans will be asking: was The Thick of It right all along? Of course, the show is satire, not reality – it’s meant to be an over-exaggeration for comedic effect. The DfE would not have looked exactly like the ‘Department for Social Affairs’ with Malcolm Tucker screaming at everyone in sight. However, much like in the critically acclaimed series, the policy decisions of the department in question quickly became a fiasco for the Government as a whole. U-turns, untested policies and apologies days after assertion meant that students leaving sixth form had no idea what to believe. Eventually, on the 17th of August, 4 confusion-filled days after A-level results were determined by a controversial algorithm, the Government settled on the policy of giving students their teacher predicted grades as their final A-level results. Is this policy the right one?

 

Students have challenged the fairness of estimated grades - with the predictions of teachers being mostly sidelined, in favour of an algorithm too influenced by the past performance of the school.

 

Considering this policy independently of the surrounding circumstances, which involved immense political pressure, then one could argue that it is a thoughtless policy with difficult consequences. Teachers tend to be overly optimistic in their students’ abilities, predicting extremely high grades that students often don’t achieve. This has led to unprecedented grade inflation from last year – Ofqual suggests the proportion of A* and A grades has jumped by 12.5%. Higher grades for the class of 2020 is unfair: both for classes that came before and after them and for the 2020 class itself who will forever find themselves explaining that they were in ‘that coronavirus year’ and never actually got to prove their academic worth with a pen and paper.

 

Moreover, this policy means that top universities are now swamped by thousands more students than normal meeting their offers – 15,000 in fact. Most universities will not be able to honour all of their offers this academic year due to low capacity, a problem made harder to solve due to social distancing requirements. This creates huge issues over fairness, with some students inevitably having to defer entry until next academic year, even if they don’t want to. On top of this, universities that normally benefit via clearing as students miss out on their top choices face major economic difficulties will find less students looking for a place. It’s all one big headache.

 

However, using teacher predictions, despite its flaws and negative consequences, is the best policy for determining A-level results because there are, quite simply, no better alternatives. This policy was announced as a swift U-turn away from the DfE’s previous A-level results solution: an algorithm developed by the exams watchdog Ofqual.

 

This algorithm, which determined the initial A-level results on results day, was a social and political disaster for the Conservative government. Though it successfully achieved its intention to control grade inflation and maintain continuity from previous years (for example, an incremental increase in top grades being awarded), it failed at an individual level. Calculating results using factors such as a school’s performance over the past 3 years meant that this year’s students’ results were being determined in the most part by the results of people that they have never met. The effect of this was that the results of promising students in disadvantaged areas at poorer quality schools were dragged down by their school’s historic poor performances, whilst students at private schools, some of who may not have done so well, saw their grades increase more as a result of their institution’s record – independent schools saw a 4.7% improvement in top grades, much larger than any other type of school. Furthermore, larger institutions with larger class sizes also seemed to be disadvantaged. Once again, the gap between state and private education, where smaller classes in more niche subjects are the norm, was laid bare.

 

Neither A-level nor GCSE students were able to sit public exams this year due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

 

The algorithm exposed and widened the educational inequality that already exists within this country. It was, rightfully, met with intense criticism from all sides. Thus, under immense pressure, the government made the decision to revert to teacher predictions and abandon the algorithm policy. This decision brings certainty and clarity for the class of 2020. It also brings England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales into alignment about how the results are decided, further increasing fairness for university entry.

 

Despite its flaws, the Government’s final policy decision to use predicted grades to determine the 2020 A-level results was the correct one, even if the decision was made when cowering from the snarls of the media and opposition parties.

 

The art of policymaking and delivery, according to public policy expert Michael Barber, involves steady implementation, consistent data analysis and a culture of routines and evaluation. He tells us in his book How to Run a Government that this whole process takes months. The Government had 5 months to establish a coherent policy that it was confident in. It failed to do so. Viable policy was established only after tears had been shed and faith in a Government had been lost.

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