The examination grading fiasco of 2020 will be remembered for years to come; what can be learnt from this experience so that it doesn’t happen again, and what can be done so that a generation of voters aren’t permanently put off of the Conservative Party?

2020 has been a year like no other, least not in education. With examinations being cancelled due to COVID-19 and many schools not being able to provide in-person teaching to most pupils since March, much has had to change with lightning speed. Of course, this has inevitably led to mistakes, and I feel the best way to show to the electorate the Party is listening is to ensure that the Party reflects on what has gone wrong, try to learn from mistakes made, and to make its commitment to young voters clear.

We must first address the emergency examinations grading system, whereby the Secretary of State for Education instructed Ofqual to come up with a system that would mean grades would be as valid as any other year [source], an aim I think we can all agree sounds ideal and preferable. However, implementing this was a challenge, and unfortunately the use of historical data hit hardest those hard-working students from disadvantaged schools [source], myself included. I was very supportive of the change to CAGs when it became clear the damage the model had done – whilst I had been downgraded from an A* to an A in Maths and from an A to a B in Chemistry, I still luckily got into Oxford University (my first choice), however others I knew had grades dropped from As to Ds and undeservedly lost their university place. I was incredibly concerned by the use of historical data even before results day [source], and unfortunately my fears were realized. The issue was not how many of each grade was rewarded, but rather the individual who got them – the issue of macro statistics vs micro statistics.

How could this have been resolved differently? I believe the lack of evidence in the assignment of grades was the problem – I don’t disagree teachers should know their students best, but the fact only around 25% of UCAS predicted grades are accurate is a concern [source], particularly when students from disadvantaged areas are more likely to have their grades underpredicted [source]. Instead, the system should have asked for a few pieces of evidence; coursework, a sample of classwork, some mock/class exams alongside teacher comments/predictions, and then these should have been moderated to ensure everybody got a grade they both deserved and was reflective of their work. The real issue was by not using evidence, students from disadvantaged areas appeared as outliers, but it was unclear whether this was due to teachers overpredicting or because they were particularly talented, and there was no fail-safe that meant if students’ grades were lowered too much in the model then evidence was requested from the school before awarding grades.

The switch to CAGs I feel was the best of a bad set of choices, and I am glad this decision was made – my personal thoughts are I’d rather have more people have grades more reflective of their abilities than many students with grades that in no way represented them, and who for the rest of their life would tell employers their C should have been an A*. Either way Ofqual and the Department for Education jumped (due to the decisions made in the development of the model by Ofqual), there was no good solution as either they undermined confidence in the exam system by producing a bunch of grades that nobody agreed with or they accepted CAGs but inevitably leading to higher grade inflation. The problem has now been pushed onto universities which could severely impact the Year 12s to come [source], and more thought must be given to ensure that next year doesn’t bear the brunt of what has happened already. However, like many things in politics, there were no good solutions. 

This was not an English-only problem (as every other nation made a similar U-turn), this was not a political party problem (as the SNP in Scotland, Labour in Wales, and those in coalition in Northern Ireland also did this), and this is definitely not a Westminster-only problem (as Education is devolved, though evidently from looking at the news more works needs to be done in making clear what is and isn’t devolved); it’s a symptom both of the inequalities already in our society and the challenges of awarding grades when exam could not be sat.

Examinations are the headlines, but what isn’t being looked at so much is the education provision being provided by schools. While around 70% of private schools have managed to provide a full-school day, barely 20% of state schools have [source]. In my experience, when students left in March it felt like our education ended. We got set a few pieces of work to finish the course in one subject on an online platform, got set some revision in two others, and in one subject we still had an eighth of the course left and were set nothing. My school were entirely unprepared for the shift online, and when they were forced to, we were barred from communicating with our teachers whatsoever until after Easter. As a student who was quite used to some independent learning, this did not seem a problem initially, but the fact we couldn’t contact our teachers at all, even if we got stuck, was enough to demotivate me very quickly from learning – if that’s my experience as a keen learner, what was it like for those students who were barely keeping up already? My school provided next to no support up until the end of June, when they started offering weekly catch-up sessions to lower year groups (not Year 13s), and the number of communications directed to me to ensure I was getting on alright could be counted on one hand throughout the entire pandemic. The situation was so bad I started to run personal statement sessions and admissions workshops to prepare Year 12s, as my school were not providing this service at all, including to potential Oxbridge applicants. It felt like my school didn’t have a plan, and I know I’m definitely not alone in having an experience similar to this, so it provokes some questions:

  • Why was my school not prepared for the shift to online? – schools should have a pre-prepared disaster management plan to be delivered within 24 hours of closing, in the event of any temporary closure, so surely they should have had something prepared for such a situation? With coronavirus also potentially rumbling on for years to come or with potential new pandemics, they can’t be caught out again.
  • Why did I not receive many communications at all from my school? – I was lucky that I was motivated, and instead I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to learn lots of new skills which I feel has made me more prepared for university than if coronavirus hadn’t happened, but it’s unclear why they didn’t reach out to make sure we were getting on ok, to see what support we needed for university, or to see if we needed any support in preparing for taking the autumn exams if we wanted to.
  • What was done to make sure the most disadvantaged students were not left behind? [source] Throughout a child’s schooling career, the gap between the most and least advantaged students in terms of their learning is around 18 months by the end of it, with the pandemic risking making this grow to 24 months [source]. The announcement of laptops for those who need it and broadband from the government is strongly welcomed and needed, but schools also have a duty to make sure every student has the support they need, so what did they do to keep them focused, did they check how much of the online work they accessed, and possibly why couldn’t they have gone in with key workers’ children to make sure they received the support they truly needed?

The answer to these questions and why schools were unable to provide support is unclear, but what is clear is that coronavirus risks creating a social mobility disaster that cannot be repaired, and could harm generations to come. It is great that 7% more disadvantaged students than last year are going to university [source], but it is important that they get value for money, that they are supported to make sure that they can keep up with their peers, and we cannot be sucked in just by headline statistics – the impact of this has got to be closely monitored and measured, with thoughtful intervention (like the National Tutoring Programme) [source] from government and relevant bodies to ensure that we fulfil Boris Johnson’s promise of levelling up across the country. Not only that, but the Conservative Party must ensure that it makes its commitment to young voters loud and clear, or the disaffected generation of 2020 will become the Labour voting generation of 2024 and beyond. Understandably, many young voters were infuriated about what happened over the last few weeks, with many genuinely feeling that their life had been ruined by the injustice of the grades they had been awarded, frustrations I myself felt. For the Party to win in 2024, and for the Party to ensure its future electoral survival, it absolutely must focus on young people, it absolutely must hold true to its commitment to social mobility and equal opportunity, and most importantly it must absolutely deliver on its promises to the British people to show that the Party is true to its word.

The opinions in these perspective pieces belong to the authors of these articles, do not represent the opinions of the YCN as an organisation.