Renew's David Britten discusses how the exams fiasco this year shows why we need political reform
Turn your mind back to March when we were in deep lockdown. I was talking to my son and he was concerned that he had his A levels coming up and did not know if he would be able to physically sit his exams or if they would be on line or even what he would do next year and his plans for university were just a dream. An article in the Guardian on March 15th was even advising the Government that they should cancel the school year for those students taking GCSE’s and A levels, and they would restart their final year in September 2020. You can imagine his response to a 3 year A level course.
So the Government closed schools on the 18th March, and all exams were cancelled. In his statement the Prime Minister said “I understand their frustrations, we will make sure their progress isn’t impeded and that in time they will get the qualifications needed”. He was advised that he would get his grades based on teachers adjustments. Basically teachers would be asked to give each student a grade, and within that grade rank the students.Ofqual would check to make sure there was no overinflation by schools. Simple and straightforward, and my son was told by his teachers he would have his predicted grades. No mention of algorithms.
Roll on early August, he had been contacted by his university, and his halls have been confirmed. With results day on the 13th August, I felt a slight apprehension with this Government, but surely even this Government after Covid 19, Brexit and numerous other mistakes that have made would not mess up these exams results. I was wrong. Having been involved with Renew since we started, seen up close how this Government, and previous Tory Governments works, I was concerned. The sensible and experienced Conservative politicians like Damian Hinds and Justine Greening (previous education secretaries) had been forced not to stand for reelection as they refused to back Boris Johnson and his disastrous ‘Get Brexit Done’. They had been replaced by Williamson and Gillian Keegan (No 2 at Department of Education) - Gillian Keegan was on holiday in the French Alps tweeting about her holiday on the day of publication of the A level results, you could not make this up.
Having some experience in the ‘algorithm’ world after working in tech start ups for the last 10 years, we would test a new algorithm to see the results and if we could create anomalies. It seemed Williamson aka Cummings didn't even do that, as they would have immediately seen the results and broken the algorithm- an exceptional student in a year group whose expected grades would outperform previous years results, and from an inner metropolitan borough with a high class size would, with the algorithm,have their grades downgraded. The student who attends a high performing school, with small class sizes would have their grades maintained if not upgraded.With competition so intense to be accepted into the top universities, a downgrade from A to B would mean instant rejection.
To allow the results day to go ahead was a dereliction of duty by Williamson, when he knew of the disaster looming. 500,000 students would receive A level results, and saying each child has 1.5 parents who are involved in their education, you have 1,250,000 people of voting age who would be furious by this mismanagement of the A level results. It just shows the arrogance of a party run by Cummings with a majority of 80 seats- they don’t care about public opinion. Fortunately after pressure from public opinion there was another U turn and the predicted grades, or the algorithm grade- whichever was greater- was awarded. It was a disgrace to see the Liberal Democrats silent on this issue.
But we can do something about this. We need to reform the Political system and you can only do that from within. If you are a student contact Alex Gunter [email protected] who is heading our drive to sign up students and young people so Renew can become politically active on campuses. If you are a parent and you are outraged by how your children have been treated contact us [email protected] and help us ensure this never happens again. I was so outraged by the fiasco, I have started a petition for the government to release the working of the algorithm- my petition passed the first hurdle but is now waiting review which due to Covid could take 14 days before I can launch a full petition- again a Cummings ploy to take the steam out of the situation and stop democracy working.
If you follow the political pundits, it appears Williamson offered his resignation but Johnson/Cummings refused to accept it. How can Williamson leave and not Cummings after the Barnard Castle arrogance. Williamson will be moved sidewards or downwards in the Autumn reshuffle- betting companies are refusing to take bets on the Williamson demotion. But it does appear that some people have a conscience as Sally Collier, chief regulator of Ofqual, has fallen on her sword and resigned.
So please do something, exercise your responsibility and make a stand against how the 2020 Students were treated. Sign up for the newsletter, join as a member or if you are a student contact Alex. And if you can sign my petition I would be most grateful!
Renew Member and Prospective Candidate, Jamie Hirst, examines local lockdowns
Governments and their departments love blanket policies. Left, right or centre they all love a cheeky blanket policy. They are easier, cheaper and quicker to implement. The fact that the Courts repeatedly find blanket policies illegal is just a minor inconvenience.
That’s not to say blanket policies can’t be useful. As mentioned, they can be quick to implement, but they need to be updated, just like the early Coronavirus regulations, which were implemented with set review dates.
A case-by-case approach is only used willingly when it is advantageous to the individual. Put another way, how often has an official used the phrase “We’re looking into this on a case-by-case basis” and you have thought, “they’re stalling”.
This is why we need to worry when the government announced that local lockdown measures will be decided on a case-by-case basis. Not only does it give the government far too much leeway, it means that people across the country have no way of planning. If the government is serious about restarting the economy, the ability for businesses to be closed on short notice is hugely problematic. On a more general term, the ability for the government to lockdown areas of the country at will, with no notice or consultation with local councils, is extremely worrying.
Yes, we know they are trying their best. We know these are unprecedented times. But let’s be honest, we are well past the initial peak when decisions needed to be made on the hoof. Surely things have settled down enough for us to gather our thoughts and have proper measures in place for dealing with localised outbreaks. There are alternatives to Johnson and Hancock having free reign on deciding how, where, and when to lockdown individual areas of the country.
What seems like a lifetime ago, Johnson unveiled the UK alert levels, alongside the first steps of easing lockdown. At the time I commented to some of my fellow Renewers that there was no discernible link between the alert level and the lockdown measures. A clearer link provides certainty, but also offers flexibility.
The government can define specific lockdown measures dependent on the local alert level. Local authorities could then use them to meet local requirements. How can central government decide on effective measures on a local level? Additionally, if I know the alert level for my area, I have a better idea of what may happen next week and be able to prepare appropriately. It would also ensure people were more aware of how their actions directly affected local restrictions. The current, “behave or else!” approach isn’t working.
The beauty of aligning lockdown to the alert level is it also allows for exemption on, yes you got it, a case-by-case basis. When non-essential shops were able to reopen, we all knew that some would find it easier than others to implement Covid-19 secure measures. If non-essential shops are allowed to open at level 2 (for example), some individual shops could be granted permission to remain open at level 3 if they were deemed to have implemented more stringent protective measures than other premises. Not only does this provide flexibility, but it would help to drive up the quality of the safety measures being adopted. This same approach could be applied to pretty much every sector of the economy.
Lockdowns and restrictions are going to be part of our life for the foreseeable future. We are out of the crisis mode we had at the beginning of the pandemic and making it up as we go is no longer acceptable. We need a clear, coherent strategy for handling local outbreaks. Unfortunately, clarity and consistency are not this governments’ strong points.