Locked down, judged by an algorithm and spat out as failures. This is the reality of thousands of teenagers across our capital and our country. Six months ago, we asked young people to follow our rules, leave their schools and surrender their freedom. They obeyed, and we rewarded them with a brutal let down in results. The more a student worked above and beyond expectations, the harder this blow was likely to be. The faster a school improved, the deeper the punch was felt. This fiasco has been regressive, unjust and – perhaps most excruciatingly – totally avoidable.
I’ve struggled to make sense of the process, but here’s my understanding. Teachers submitted grades and the government then weighted these according to the previous school years’ results. So if, like Nina, you were a particularly high performing student in a relatively low performing school, you were weighted down – in her case, moving from predicted grades of ABB to DDD, leaving her rejected from all of the higher education institutions she applied to. In contrast, because relatively resource-rich private schools are more likely to get consistently higher results, they are less likely to be weighted down. In fact, some lower achieving private school students may now be surfing on higher grades than they would have if they’d actually sat the exams.
This algorithm also punishes schools that have made fast improvements. If you’ve had some bad results in the past, but you’ve really turned things around in the last few years, you are still going to be dragged down by the algorithm taking into account those previous, more difficult, years. Students sitting their exams in state schools in London which have seen great rises in results relatively quickly, are particularly likely to be stung.
But the problems don’t stop there. Students going to private schools have always been more likely to benefit from smaller class sizes, but now that gives them an added advantage. When class sizes get below a certain point, they become too small to apply the algorithm to. Instead, teachers’ predicted grades are simply accepted. Because teachers’ grades tend to be higher than those thrown out by government, those students are more likely to achieve a higher result based on an arbitrary bureaucratic process rather than on effort or talent.
What kind of message does this send? Society is underpinned by the basic, sacred assumption that if you work hard and do the right thing, it pays off. This link between effort and reward, between input and output, between talent and success, has always been under threat from inequality and absence of opportunity. This is the reciprocal deal that aligns our individual and collective interests. But to decouple it further, as this government has done, is not just brutally unfair, it’s also dangerous. If we don’t believe that hard work or talent mean anything under a government’s rules, what incentive do we have to play by them?
We must act to fix these basic errors before GCSE results day later this week. Some action may well be needed to standardise imbalances in teacher predictions, but it doesn’t have to be this. The algorithm could be upgraded to prevent these biases. It could take into account mock results. Ofsted or Ofqual could be used to check grades that seem out of line rather than an algorithm. Teachers could have a chance to challenge algorithm-generated anomalies before they are set. Longer term, it’s past time to develop a fairer system that depends less on one final set of exams and more on a mixture of coursework, exams and teacher assessment that would judge students in a fairer, more balanced way earlier.
As the government scrambles defensively in the face of these charges, ministers should remember that there is another type of exam coming. At the next general election, all of these young people will be able to grade this government on its performance. Their judgement is likely to be far more just – and more harsh – than the grades they have received.
Rowenna Davis is a London secondary school teacher, political activist and writer. Follower her on Twitter.
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