Opinion | The A-Level fiasco revealed the engrained classism in the British education system


By Max Satterly Webley, Second Year, Chemistry

Ever since the election in December last year, Boris Johnson’s government has gone from scandal to scandal racking up criticisms from every corner of the UK, with Conservative MPs and backbenchers even being vocal in critiquing its actions.

But Johnson’s most recent dance with political danger has been an egregious attack on college and sixth-form students preparing to fly the nest and go to University this September.

With seemingly little oversight – or thought – on the part of Ofqual, the exam regulator, or the Department for Education, more than 39% of students all over the country had their grades dropped below the grades given by their teachers. One student saw her grades drop from AAB to EED, which was an unfortunately common occurrence.

Obviously, the tremendous amount of cases similar to this have sparked protests around the UK which, thankfully, caused a massive government U-turn giving students grades calculated by the professionals who knew them best: their teachers.

However, this is just another avoidable catastrophe in a long line of failure by the government; from Dominic Cummings’ journey to Durham to the worst economic performance in the G7 to the worst death toll of any European country during a global pandemic. That is to say this entire A-level fiasco is a result of the inadequate response of the government to the Coronavirus crisis.

Had they acted more effectively to stem the outbreak of the virus and reduce cases with greater determination, college students could have taken their exams this summer, completely nullifying any need for an algorithmic determination of exam grades.

With so many students taking hits to their results it begs the question, how has this happened?

Whilst laying bare the dark intricacies of British education, the A level fiasco is but a symptom of a long-lasting cultural disease

There is only one answer to this question, something that has plagued British culture for centuries, and that is classism. The gloomy underbelly of British society, the idea that the top stays at the top and the bottom in the dirt.

Whilst laying bare the dark intricacies of British education, the A level fiasco, as it has been dubbed, is but a symptom of this long-lasting cultural disease. The decision by the government to determine student’s grades algorithmically rather than by sat exams was almost a self-dissection.

As is the nature of an algorithm, there is no humanity or emotion encoded within it unless it is imparted by the creator and, given the circumstance in which I write this sentence, I find it reasonable to say individuals were given little to no thought.

By using postcodes, and the three previous year’s performance of a school, it became a real lottery as to what grades students achieved and, of course, students in private education where in much better standing. Private schools are famed for their better education with reduced class sizes and more one-on-one time with teachers.

Not only does this mean that students who can’t afford to go to an independent school (a massive 84% of the student body sitting exams each year) start off at a disadvantage but, thanks to the preconditions of the algorithm, they were being kept back.

Reduced class sizes even helped private school kids when it came down to this year’s algorithmic results. For classes with under 15 pupils, predicted grades dominated what was used to determine the attained grades of a student and if there were five or less, they were the only thing used.

Were it not for the brilliant resilience of protesters and campaigners, this action would have blocked thousands of working-class and minority students from attending University

Had there been one-off cases littered about the country, the appeals process set in place would’ve been adequate enough to deal with complaints, but with 280,000 students unfairly affected there was no way some students would’ve been able to go to University this year.

The algorithm could have had a very visible effect on Universities too. Across the country, despite the massive fall in grades, the number of A and A*’s awarded rose by 2.4% from last year. This was across the board from all types of schools.

Although comprehensive state schools saw a rise of 2% this is nothing compared to independent schools which saw a shockingly high increase of 4.7% from last year. This is an obscenity, especially considering the decrease in the number of high grades awarded in private schools last year.

Bristol SU criticises ‘faceless’ and ‘unjust’ A-Level marking system
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Were it not for the brilliant resilience of protesters and campaigners in the past week or so, this action would have blocked thousands of working-class and minority students (who often go to less affluent and academic schools) from attending University – with some being the first in their families to do so.

This would have completely destroyed the progress made over the past decades to make Universities and higher education (HE) more diverse and inclusive places where people can grow and develop academically.

University is one of the main places people gain social mobility and opportunities not afforded to them outside of HE.

With the chief examiner of Ofqual having resigned, it’s time for Gavin Williamson – the architect of this debacle – to follow suit and show that he and his party still have some semblance of poise and dignity.

Were it intentional or not – I am doubtful over this myself – the effects were profound enough to cause hundreds of protesters to march on Westminster just days after they received their results, culminating in yet another embarrassment for this Conservative government.

We must congratulate all of the people who turned out to protest this fiasco as, if we are to progress as a country, we must allow all people access to higher education no matter where they live or who they are.

Featured: Bristol Protest for Educational Justice (co-host: Bristol NEU)

What did you make of the A-Level fiasco? Do you think Gavin Williamson should resign?