View from Westminster: Push next year’s GCSE and A Level exams back to June to help students left behind in lockdown

Katherine Johnston (02 September, 2020)

'Young people’s futures cannot be held back by government incompetence'

31615Harriet Harman

It’s so important that all parents send their children back to school this week after months of missing their friends and schooling, it’s been so hard for parents as well as children during the COVID lockdown, writes Harriet Harman…

And I want to thank the teachers and school staff who have worked tirelessly so their pupils continued to learn in the lockdown and who’ve now made preparations to ensure a safe return to school.

But the government’s mishandling of schools has made it so much harder.  They have bungled the A level and GCSE results, dithered over when and how children should go back to school and failed to properly engage with and consult teachers.

In March the government rightly closed all schools and colleges in England to try and halt the spread of COVID and so exams were cancelled. Ofqual, the examinations regulator, was tasked by the Government with devising a system for giving students grades without exams. The method chosen and agreed by the government was based on centre assessed grades (CAGs), pupil rankings and an algorithm based results partly on how schools had performed in past years.  This discriminated  against high achieving students in schools which had not had good results in the past, holding back students who’d worked hard and done well.

On 13 August when students were told their grades. Forty per cent of them were horrified to find they had been given lower  grades than their teachers had predicted.  It is terrible that the algorithm disproportionately hit children in low-income families and Black and Ethnic minority people and thereby breached the laws against discrimination.

I received dozens of heart-rending emails from A-Level students in Southwark given marks lower than their predicted grades, who lost out on their university places or apprenticeships – their future taken from them. One student in Peckham lost her place at King’s College London after being downgraded by four grades. With support from Sacred Heart School Kings reversed their decision, but only after 10 days of acute stress for the student, their family and their teachers.

On Monday 17 August, following a weekend of protests by students, the government backed down and announced students’ grades for A-levels and GCSEs would be based on their teachers’ predictions or their awarded grades, whichever was higher.

Even after the Government U-turn, some students still missed out on their university place as they’d been reallocated to other students. One of many Camberwell students missed out on her first choice university by one grade. She and her school are still waiting to hear back about her appeal. I have offered to support her however I can.

The education secretary’s claim to have only become aware of the issues around the algorithm after results day does not hold water when the Education Select Committee had raised serious concerns as early as June.

Labour are now pressing the Government to push next year’s A-level and GCSE exams back from May to July to give students more time to catch up and to avoid more chaos. The students starting Year 11 and 13 in September 2020 have a mountain to climb having missed months of schooling. Young people’s futures cannot be held back by government incompetence. It’s so important that the government starts to make clear plans now so they don’t repeat the exam grade fiasco.

As pupils return to school it will be clear just how much some have lost out by not having proper computer equipment and access to broadband or whose home circumstances make it difficult for them to have kept up with school work.  The government must direct policy and money to helping those students catch up so that we tackle the widening “attainment gap”. We must protect children’s education and not allow a growth in inequality to be another legacy of COVID.

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Harriet Harman
Southwark NewsComment