Empty examination hall in Epsom College. Photo: David Hawgood / geograph.org.uk / cropped original image / licensed under CC 2.0, linked at bottom of article Empty examination hall in Epsom College. Photo: David Hawgood / geograph.org.uk / cropped original image / licensed under CC 2.0, linked at bottom of article

Students, particularly those from working class backgrounds, are the victims of the government’s exam shambles, argues John Westmoreland

British children are the most tested and examined students in the world. Strange to think that the government who insists on exam success as the only arbiter of individual progress, has made a complete dog’s breakfast of the entire examination process.

The school report for Education Minister Gavin Williamson is pretty damning.

The NEU’s Dr Mary Bousted has given a withering assessment of Williamson’s efforts:

“Ignorance and inaction appear to have been his watchwords”.

Oh dear.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said Williamson’s performance “beggars belief”, after he did a U-turn on teacher recommended grades.

The students who have had to wait since March to find out whether they will progress to the next stage of their education are the real victims of what many are calling ‘a fiasco’.

We do not have the full picture yet, but a BBC Radio 4 contributor has claimed that over 50 per cent of centre assessed (teacher recommended) grades will be downgraded. This might dash the hopes of thousands of students who will not go on to further education or attend the university of their choice.

Assessment without exams

When the Covid-19 crisis struck and the summer examinations had to be abandoned, schools had to assess their students and predict their grade. This would then have to be confirmed with the exam boards and approved by their governing body, Ofqal.

There is no reason to believe that schools got it wrong. They were unlikely to negatively assess their own students on the one hand. And having to justify their decisions to the exam boards made them generally rigorous.

School assessments are based on data – far more data than a simple final exam result. For example, classroom participation, problem solving, work that meets a range of learning objectives and so on, are all relevant to predicting a final grade. A level students have always been predicted a grade on the basis of their GCSE results, and many schools have made their recommendations using this data. And finally there were the mock exams taken before lockdown.

Teachers know that mock exam results are nothing like the final results they expect. Some students do not take them seriously, and in any case they are set to give the students a chance to fail, and to learn from the failure. So mock exams alone cannot and should not be used to judge final outcomes.

The process this year has been extremely rigorous and students are likely to get a more accurate assessment of their ability precisely because they do not have to live-or-die by the final exam result.

However, this is a worry for the Tories. Working class kids will do better than expected. The Tories fear that their mortal enemy – compassion – will result in grade inflation. Will all this mean the return of ‘the Blob’? This was a term Michael Gove used to lampoon his educational critics when he was Minister of Education. Elitism has to be defended by the Tories.

Algorithms and class privilege

When the summer exam papers are all marked, the exam board statisticians take over. Grade boundaries are set before the results can be awarded.

This year schools that have been working hard to improve their grades and feel confident that this year’s students have done better than previous years will have alerted statisticians, warned of the likelihood of grade inflation by government.

This means that the schools from more prosperous areas, and that are expected to do well, will have their results confirmed. Whereas schools from deprived areas will have their, probably, well-earned and improved results denied.

The Tories have educational expectations that are guaranteed by the algorithms they use. It means that all the hard work and effort that students have put in will count for nought in areas where under achievement is the norm.

The clamour about this obvious injustice is already affecting the Tories, with Williamson saying that students who are unhappy with their teacher recommended results can appeal. Note he is framing any error as the responsibility of teachers. He has also claimed that there could be exams in the autumn.


The government has not been able to tell us how covid-safe examinations will be held. Nor has it told exam boards to prepare for exams beyond saying that it is a possibility.

Furthermore the inherent injustices in the exams results are not going to be resolved by individual students appealing their grade. When whole schools in overwhelmingly deprived areas have seen their results modified to fit class expectations, then the government has to be forced to give in. Individual appeals are a distraction, and there is no system in place to deal with the thousands who will want to use it.

As Mary Bousted has said: “He [Williamson] should have listened to the concerns raised much earlier by teachers and assessment experts.” And that really is the answer. Let’s imagine that teachers and examiners know best, and trust them to deliver a fair result.

And let’s draw the political conclusion that ‘caring one-nation Conservatism’ is a sham. At every level the Tories have acted in the interests of the minority they serve.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

Tagged under: