Robert Halfon: The Government’s education recovery funding has created another North-South divide

9 Feb

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Almost £5 billion has been spent on education recovery by the Government. This spending is welcome, but I worry this funding is not reaching the most vulnerable children in our communities.

The National Tutoring Programme (NTP), currently contracted to Randstad, has the potential to be one of the great interventions made to date to support young people’s recovery from the impact of the pandemic. And yet, despite significant investment, it is falling far short of its targets and it’s not going far enough or happening quickly enough.

Over 524,000 children were supposed to start tutoring this year but only eight per cent have actually begun.

The Education Policy Institute has found there has been a marked disparity in the take-up of the NTP between the North and the South. In the South, upwards of 96 per cent of schools were engaging with the programme compared to just 50 per cent of schools in the North. Recently, headteachers and tutoring groups described to us the inaccessibility of the hub and the lack of quality assurance about the tutors on offer.

Perhaps most importantly of all, the Department for Education’s own annual report, published in December, evidenced that the risk of the catch-up programme failing to recover lost learning is critical or very likely.

The Government must look again at the contract with Randstad and seriously consider enacting the break clause. If Randstad cannot up its game, it is time to say goodbye.

The ghost children

A recent report published by the Centre for Social Justice, Lost but not forgotten, highlighted that 758 schools across the country are missing almost an entire class worth of children. Indeed, around 500 children are missing in about half of all local authorities and over 13,000 children in critical exam years are likely to be severely absent.

The effects of persistent absence go well beyond just academic progress. It also means these children are at risk for safeguarding concerns such as domestic abuse or county line gangs. The tragic cases of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson are an all too poignant reminder of this risk.

The Department’s recent announcements to tackle the postcode lottery of avoidable absence are a positive start, but more urgent action is needed. Prioritisation must be given to collecting real-time data about who and where these children are and the Government should use the underspend from the NTP to fund an additional two thousand attendance advisers to work on the ground to help find these children and get them safely back into school.

Charles Dickens wrote of: “so many things forgotten, and so many more which might have been repaired”.

If we are to save the Oliver Twist generation of “ghost children”, we must act now. If we do nothing, we will be haunted by them forever.

The exam conundrum

I welcome the Government’s plan to move back to regular examinations. Given that so many children missed school over the course of the pandemic due to school closures, it is understandable that Ofqual has decided to give pupils advanced information about some aspects of the topics that will be assessed to help support their revision.

But there are two elephants in the room. The first being that essentially, all students will now be running a 50m sprint, instead of a 100m race, yet they will all be starting from the same point. This may seem fair, but for disadvantaged pupils who learned the least during the pandemic, they will now be pitted directly against their better-off peers who were able to continue their learning at home.

The Government’s reply to this will be that the catch-up programme is designed to alleviate this problem, but as described above, despite the 524,000 target set by the NTP, it is currently only reaching eight per cent of pupils.

The second elephant, also referenced to above, is that according to the Centre for Social Justice, we know that over 13,000 children in exam years have not returned to school for the most part. So a system has been created where advantaged pupils will feel the benefit of the advanced notice, but their worse-off peers will struggle. Furthermore, we risk ignoring the 13,000 pupils in A-Level and GCSE year groups who have not returned to school at all.

Mental health

This week is Children’s Mental Health Week – a timely reminder about the need to address the challenges surrounding children’s mental health.

The statistics we are confronted with are pretty grim.

Just last year, 17.4 per cent of children aged 6-16 are reported to have a probable mental health disorder (up from 11.6 per cent in 2017). Eating disorders among young girls have risen by 46 per cent. The number of young people being referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services have been steadily rising to 538,564 in 2020, representing an increase of 35 per cent from 2019, and 60 per cent from 2018.

The Government must rocket boost its proposals to put mental health professionals in every school. But interventions to support mental health must not be seen as crutches, but should be designed to teach resilience to prevent more serious escalation.

Work must also be done to tackle the wrecking ball of social media on young people’s mental health.

In 2021, 16.7 per cent of 11 to 16 year olds using social media agreed that the number of likes, comments and shares they received had an impact on their mood. Half agreed that they spent more time on social media than they meant to and one in three girls said they were unhappy with their personal appearance by the age of fourteen.

Companies like TikTok, which, whilst providing some entertaining, are sadly acting as a trojan horse for sexualised content and negative body image thereby perpetuating eating disorders which have increased by 400 per cent among young girls during lockdown. As with other social media platforms, TikTok algorithms are like “crack for kids”.

We know that half of all mental health problems manifest by the age of 14, and 75 per cent by the age of 24. With the clear links between using social media platforms and poor mental health, why are the tech giants not stepping up to do more?

The Treasury should introduce a two per cent levy on the estimated £4.8 billion of profits generated by the big firms. This levy could generate a funding pot of around £100 million which could be distributed to schools to improve mental health support and to provide digital skills training to help support children’s resilience online.

Given the scale of the mental health challenges facing our young people, action has to be taken now to prevent it becoming an epidemic.

Christian Wakeford: The number of pupils doing A-Level maths is fantastic – but higher education is not doing enough to support them

9 Aug

Christian Wakeford is MP for Bury South

All students receiving their A-Level results tomorrow deserve huge credit. It’s been another disrupted and difficult year for pupils.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is that maths is set to be the most popular subject choice, just as it has been for the last few years. According to the interim figures from Ofqual, over 90,000 pupils will receive A-Level results in maths this week. (It’s a long way back to second place in the list of subjects – 68,000 sat psychology while biology takes bronze with 63,000 candidates).

This is good news for maths. But it brings with it certain issues. With so many school pupils sitting maths we must ensure that the pipeline in further and higher education is big enough to accommodate them. There are worrying signs of kinks in that pipeline.

Earlier this year Leicester University took the decision to close the pure maths group in its mathematics department. That prompted the founding, by the London Mathematical Society and others, of the Protect Pure Maths campaign. Its dual aims are to promote maths in general and to protect pure maths in particular, because that area of the subject seems most under threat at the moment.

Dr Nira Chamberlain, president of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA), is a vocal supporter of the campaign. He recently said, “To those who think we can have a better society by reducing pure mathematical activity, I say this: ‘All of mathematics is important, you cannot target one without hurting the other!’ When mathematics is strong the UK economy becomes stronger.”

That goes to the nub of the issue. The mathematical sciences contribute over £200 billion to the UK economy, that’s around 10 per cent of GDP. We need maths and mathematicians as we rebuild the economy.

But sometimes it can be tricky to see what pure maths in particular contributes. By its very nature pure maths is concerned with pursuing mathematical ideas for their own sake.

And yet without it our lives today would be very different. For example, the encryption that secures the contents of your mobile phone and which facilitated all those contactless transactions during the pandemic relies on principles from pure maths.

We don’t just carry pure maths in our pockets. It’s pure maths that underpins the safe and successful functioning of GPS satellites in space mapping the globe. Pure maths keeps us safe.

Alan Turing was studying a knotty problem in mathematical logic back in the 1930s. It appeared to have limited real world application. Yet when it came to cracking the Enigma code that pure maths work proved vital. And of course Turing’s work would ultimately hatch modern computers.

Today, government security and surveillance hub GCHQ is one of the nation’s largest employers of pure mathematicians. The Heilbronn Institute – a partnership between GCHQ and universities put out a statement on ‘the value of pure mathematics in security’ which boiled down to this line: “Pure mathematics is crucial in designing and analysing modern security protocols.”

Pure maths helps keep us well. For example, by making MRI scanners more efficient it has surely saved the lives of many patients. Maths in all its forms has been crucial to our response to Covid-19. From the graphs that we became accustomed to seeing at Downing Street briefings to modelling the spread of the disease, and more happily, the development and rollout of vaccines – a process in which this country and this government has led the world.

We can lead the world in maths too if we recognise the value of maths in all its forms and ensure maths departments remain not just viable but healthy.

Students acing A-Level maths today shouldn’t have to travel far from home if they don’t want to. There’s a danger that if some institutions make injudicious cuts then pure maths will become the preserve of certain universities while others will specialise in applied mathematics. Better to have maths departments where all strands of the subject can interact, infuse and enthuse each other spread throughout the country.

This government knows the value of maths. We’ve announced £300 million in additional funding for the subject. The details around that commitment should be forthcoming in the autumn. I hope it will be used to fund all branches of mathematics and that it will be provided in a sustainable way, to pay for students to complete courses over a number of years. That is the way to maintain our mathematical pipeline of excellence.

By doing so we give today’s pupils celebrating their success at maths A-Level the best opportunity to develop their knowledge and love of the subject. And we give the nation the best chance of reaping the rewards of that excellence in terms of the economy, opportunity and in finding the answers to questions we have even thought to ask yet and in being ready to face challenges currently unknown.

The DfE has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at school reopenings. But the perennial problem is communication.

25 Feb

With little over a week to go before schools reopen, Gavin Williamson has been busy trying to persuade all parties concerned that it’s safe to go back.

Yesterday at a Downing Street press conference, he outlined plans for schools in England. One of the Government’s biggest moves is a “pandemic package” of extra funding to help pupils catch up with all the learning they have missed during the course of 2020/21.

The Government will fund £700 million in total for England, with a £302 million Recovery Premium dedicated towards state and primary schools. This is designed to help schools support disadvantaged students in whatever way they think is best – whether that’s additional clubs and activities, or something else.

The other huge development is that A-Level and GCSE results in England this year will be decided by predicted grades (teachers deciding pupils’ exam results, based on a combination of mock exams, coursework and essays). More on that later.

As for safety, face masks will not be compulsory in schools, but “highly recommended”, and Nick Gibb, the education minister, said he hoped the majority of students would volunteer to have Coronavirus testing twice a week. Secondary schools and colleges are also allowed to stagger reopenings on March 8 to get testing in order.

The DfE has gone to huge efforts to try and get schools running again. It is trying to pre-empt every criticism that has been levelled at the Government during the pandemic, from schools not having enough tests to concerns about how far behind pupils are, which will be addressed with mass testing and after-school classes, respectively.

One of the toughest challenges for the Government has been deciding how to mark grades. It cannot win, whichever route it takes. When it used an algorithm over the summer – designed by Ofqual – to decide GCSEs and A Levels, this led to huge outrage about exam results. But predicted grades aren’t perfect either. When the Government switched to them after the Ofqual furore, it led to grade inflation (last year a total of 76 per cent of GCSE results were a grade 4 or above compared to 67.1 per cent in 2019).

Williamson said 2021’s predicted grades will be “fair to every student”, and Gibb promised “the best system possible to ensure there is consistency and fairness in how teachers submit grades for their students.” But you sense that it’ll be another troublesome summer for the Government.

Add to that it is already dealing with increasing calls to bump teachers up the vaccine queue. These will only grow after Germany announced it was doing this (even in spite of its terrible difficulties rolling out the vaccine, which make it no model to follow). 

Although the UK government’s scientific advisers have repeatedly spelled out the rationale for the vaccine order, it has been hard to compete with the likes of Tony Blair (who has also called for teacher prioritisation) and everyone else who has suddenly decided they’re an epidemiologist.

Overall, the Government’s biggest problem has always been communication. Up against a vocal opposition – that’s the teaching unions, not Labour – Williamson has struggled to make the case for keeping schools open (and it is a strong one).

As I wrote in November for ConservativeHome, one way the Government could have moved its plans forward is by using an independent taskforce in the way it did for vaccines (with Kate Bingham in charge). I also wrote that “it would be wrong to assume that the issue of closures has now been settled for good” – at a time when public attitudes to school reopenings actually improved.

Likewise, despite the speedy roll out of the vaccines and a palpable excitement about the Government’s roadmap to easing lockdown, one senses that the problems with school reopenings are far from over.

U-turn of the year – A Level results and the Government abandoning the Ofqual algorithm for predicted grades

31 Dec

In a tight competition, A Level results were deemed U-turn of the year by our panel with 28.11 per cent of the vote. Many will remember the outcry in August after the Department of Education used an algorithm by Ofqual to predict grades, leading to huge disappointment among students. Gavin Williamson and the Ofqual soon apologised and decided that all A Level and GCSE results in England would be from then on be calculated by teacher assessments.

In at 25.87 per cent, our panelists felt that the Government’s position on free school meals was another big U-turn, followed by Sadiq Khan’s decision for London to have a lockdown and curfews, only to then fight for these to be avoided, and Keir Starmer in last place with his Brexit flip flopping. Either way, there was no stand out winner in this category, unlike some of our others.

John Bald: Churchill was right. Exams should enable people to show what they can do. Not find out what they can’t.

2 Dec

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.

At the height of this year’s examination crisis, I posted three articles arguing that Ofqual was worse than useless and should be shut down. Gavin Williamson, having resisted invitations to endorse it, has done the next best thing by asking Amanda Spielman and a group of experienced people to supervise next year’s exams. More on this shortly, but first a postscript on last year.

For no good reason, Ofqual ceased publishing any information on its activities, last August, as if it were a branch of the security services. Then last month it released a redacted version of no fewer than 29 Board meetings, held in secret, with much fuller information than its previous minutes, which had been no more than a reprint of the agenda, telling us nothing at all about any decisions. The redactions included 44 insertions of the phrase:

“This section has been redacted, as its publication would be prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs.”

That seriously limits the value of the documents, leaving aside the irony of using this expression to refer to affairs that could scarcely have been conducted less effectively. The goal was to cast Ofqual as the dutiful public servant, and Gavin Williamson as the villain.

I might have fallen for it had I not seen in another context the relations between the Department for Education and Ofqual, which really does enjoy the independence that has been claimed for it and will not budge from its formulaic approach, whatever the evidence. Its chief officers and chairman have a statistical mindset that shows no understanding of education whatsoever. The root of the problem was the botched mathematical formula that it produced in response to a perfectly reasonable request from the DfE to devise an approach that would be as fair as possible. At the eleventh hour, Williamson correctly decided that allowing school assessments was the lesser evil, even though there were injustices there too, with some schools simply submitting severely graded mock results and others what their pupils might have hoped for on the best of days.

Which brings us to 2021, and the difficult task facing Spielman and her colleagues. Almost all pupils in state schools have had serious gaps in their teaching. As an example, an A level student with whom I’m working (pro bono, and I have vacancies) had no teaching from his school for four months. He is fortunate in that his set book for Spanish is just 95 pages in large type, while the French equivalent has 450, in smaller type – over five times as much material for the same marks. He has just been hit with a two-week isolation because someone sitting near him had covid, and had been told there would be no teaching during that period. Only half of the class had been isolated, creating further problems. Eventually a laptop was set up to stream the Spanish, with powerpoints only for the other subjects.

So, how to be fair to all pupils when some will not have been taught large areas of their syllabus, and some have missed little or nothing? Not, incidentally, that the gaps are always the schools’ fault. Some parents can’t and others won’t tune in, even when well-designed work is provided. Giving out reduced papers in advance won’t help, as some will be approaching these topics from scratch, while for others it will be revision. We also know from experience that this is likely to lead to corruption. Languages teachers are, incidentally, worried about consistency in grading the spoken component, which is being carried out in widely differing ways in schools.

The only way I can see to tackle this huge variation in preparation is to adopt Churchill’s principle that exams should enable people to show what they can do, rather than find out what they can’t. This would require questions to be set on every topic in each syllabus, with schools allowed, at the start of each paper, to direct pupils to the parts of the paper they had covered. Answers would be marked with a view to quality, and grades considered qualitatively, rather than statistically, in relation to other evidence the school might offer, including its results in 2019. This evidence would also be considered on its merits rather than from a formula.

The operation would require highly-skilled markers, and moderation procedures based on professional knowledge and understanding, leavened by common sense. Candidates would need to be given the benefit of any doubt – real doubt, not number-crunching – and we would have to accept that these results, like this year’s, are less reliable than they will be in a year without disruption. The practical difficulties are great, and the full range of professional skills, including those of inspectors, would have to be brought to bear on it. Against this lies the possibility of proving once and for all what most of us in education know in our hearts – that Churchill was right.

John Bald: Ofqual’s evidence at a Select Committee this week demonstrated why it should be wound up

4 Sep

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.

Ofqual’s appearance at the Education Select Committee on Wednesday showed more clearly than anything to date just how far the organisation’s faith in statistical modelling and lack of understanding of education led it into error – and the education system into chaos.

Roger Taylor, its Chairman, started confidently, saying that Ofqual had wanted examinations to continue, but had been overruled by the Secretary of State. A second option had been to delay the examinations, and the third to find “some form of calculated grades.”

Gavin Williamson wrote to Ofqual on March 31 to say that students should receive “calculated results based on their exam centres’ judgements of their ability in the relevant subjects, supplemented by a range of other evidence.”

He went on to say that the approach should be “standardised across centres”, and that steps should be taken to maintain a similar grade profile to previous years. Ofqual then used “statistics and teachers’ rankings” to produce something which, said Taylor, was as fair as it could be.

The first error was to advise that examinations continue. This was impossible because some schools, following trade union advice, stopped direct online teaching as soon as lockdown started, while others – only a handful in the state sector – did not.

Stopping teaching when it would have been perfectly possible to continue it for A level classes would have put the affected pupils at a serious disadvantage. The same issue would have affected delayed examinations.

Ofqual’s statisticians could not have been expected to understand these considerations, but ministers did. Ofqual’s Board, which has highly experienced and expert practitioners, would have been able to explain the position but,  according to its official records, did not meet between 26th September 2019 and a late-night session on 15th August, when it put its collective foot down over the botched appeals process. Why not?

What seems to have happened instead is the delegation of the work to a technical group, which did not standardise teachers’ assessments, as instructed, but ignored them completely by applying a statistical model to their rankings. Michelle Meadows, Ofqal’s “Executive director, strategy, risk and research”, justified this by saying that teachers’ grades were not accurate, but that their rankings were.

There is some research evidence to support this view, notably from Daisy Christodoulou, but to ignore teachers’ grades completely was a victory for statistics over reality. Dr Meadows told the committee that 0.2 per cent of grades were “potentially anomalous” and that the statistical model – which I will not flatter with the term “algorithm” – was fair and unbiased.

Furthermore, as teachers were often unsure whether to enter candidates for lower or higher tiers in some subjects, Ofqual had removed any limitation on grades for foundation candidates. That sounds fair – until we see pupils with very limited skills awarded grade 9 on the basis of work they’d never even seen.

Conservative committee members Jonathan Gullis and Christian Wakeford made the case for reality, Gullis pointing to the unfairness of the model to large entries from FE colleges, and Wakeford echoing a pupil’s lament, “I’ve got somebody else’s D”.

The consequences of not applying the model to entries of fewer than five candidates, which favoured private schools and some subjects had clearly blind-sided Ofqual, as did the question why they did not run this year’s results, which they had had since June, through the model to see how far it worked.

Dr Meadows evaded this question, saying they had done all sorts of trials. The point is: why not this one, which would have allowed problems to be identified in advance? It is hard to see how a system that only claimed 60 per cent accuracy could result in only 0.2 per cent of potential anomalies, but Dr Meadows was undaunted. Analysis did not show any bias in the system.

Robert Halfon concluded by asking whether Ofqual was fit for purpose, to which the witnesses, all of them Ofqual officials, predictably replied in the affirmative.

I do not agree with them. Assigning children’s futures to a statistical model, without considering the quality of their work, or even looking at it, is not the action of a reasonable body, acting reasonably, and would have brought a well-deserved hammering on judicial review.

If Ofqual had moderated teachers assessments sensibly, perhaps, as suggested by Bob3142 in response to my previous article, by requiring schools to justify any overall change from past performance, we could have had a fair outcome. As it is, we have had to swallow the grade inflation, and leave schools and universities to sort out the mess. Ofqual should be wound up.

John Bald: Ofqual needs a Chairman and Chief Regulator who know about education. If these can’t be found, we must start again.

20 Aug

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice President of the Conservative Education Society.

Ofqual’s A level grades could not stand. The standard for a judicial review – that no reasonable person, acting reasonably, could have reached the decision in question (Associated Provincial Picture Houses v Wednesbury Corporation, 1948) was met with ease.

Failing a person without even looking at their work can never be reasonable. It is equally clear that Ofsted’s Saturday night U-turn was the result of its Board, which not met since last September, deciding  that it was not going to go down with the Chief Regulator and Chairman. Ofqual should have spent the money it wasted on Public First on some decent legal advice. A first-year law student could have told them.

Last week’s dog’s dinner has been followed by a dog’s breakfast. As universities struggle with the flood of candidates deemed successful, while the smaller number who feel let down by their schools are left with no redress, schools and sixth forms are hit with a huge increase in top GCSE grades.

In fairness to Gavin Wilkinson, his instruction to Ofqual when the exams were cancelled in March, was “that these students should be issued with calculated results based on their exam centres’ judgements of their ability in the relevant subjects, supplemented by a range of other evidence.”Ofqual was legally required to do this, but instead overruled these calculations via a statistical rigmarole that took no notice of them, except where they had five or fewer candidates in a subject.

The Chief Regulator and Chairman decided to do it their way,  and so hit the rocks. To that extent, the Government is justified in saying that the mess is Ofqual’s fault, and its expression of confidence in the Chief Regulator would shame a football club chairman.  The DfE’s own failure lay in not following its instructions through to ensure that they were carried out.   The Daily Mail’s front page cartoon of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State as Laurel and Hardy sums it all up.

So, what now? First, we need to get rid of the idea that these grades are results. They are not, and cannot be relied on. Geoff Barton, of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that schools had given borderline candidates the benefit of the doubt, but this is not quite the case.

A university source from the North of England told me that many had given the most optimistic estimate of what might have been achieved with full teaching and revision, but that some had simply entered mock results, even if these had been lower than teachers’ estimates. No appeal was available, and university places had been lost as a result.

Barton’s view is more realistic than the corruption that took over GCSE school-based assessments, but the conflict of interest can’t be disguised.  When a school gives a pupil an A, it gives itself one too, and I’ve seen unjustified top grades lead to pupils struggling and failing in the next stage of education.

Ofqual itself is an odd fish. Devised by Labour in 2009 to counter well-founded suspicions of dumbing down and grade inflation, it is, like Ofsted, notionally independent, but must “have regard “ to government policy when publicly directed to do so.

This leaves the Chief Regulator very wide discretion, exemplified by Sally Collier’s statement, after lowering A level grade boundaries in 2017, that “I want the message to be that students have done fantastically well. All our kids are brilliant”.  If all are brilliant, all must have prizes.  In the end, Oqual’s Board meeting on Saturday simply obliged her to base judgements on Williamson’s instruction, rather than ignoring it. What the Board could not do was meet his instruction to take account of additional evidence, hence opening the floodgates.

The statute requires Ofqual to perform its functions “efficiently and effectively”. It has failed to do so, but it is unfair to judge an educational body on its handling of a pandemic. More important are its failure to ensure fair and equitable grading – leading to able pupils taking physics and languages receiving lower grades than in other subjects – and a structure that allows its chief regulator to base major decisions on personal views. Improving supervision by the Board, and appointing a Chairman and Chief Regulator who know about education may both help. Failing that, we need to start again.

Labour’s hypocrisy over A Level results

18 Aug

Almost every publication, including this site, has been critical of the Government’s U-turn on school exams in England.

Gavin Williamson’s decision to move from Ofqual’s model, which resulted in 40 per cent of predicted marks being downgraded, to teacher-assessed grades for A Levels and GCSEs (unless the grades produced by the algorithm are higher) caused chaos among students and teachers.

Now it’s universities who’ll have to deal with the consequences, given that many teenagers have different marks to before and want to change which one they go to.

As you might expect from the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer has been scathing about the recent events. On his Twitter feed he is particularly fond of one word – “incompetent/ incompetence”, which he has accused the Government of being seven times since Sunday (heaven forbid there’s a thesaurus at Labour HQ).

After teacher-assessed grades (predicted grades) were accepted, he declared the changes a “victory for the thousands of young people who have powerfully made their voices heard this past week.”

Of course, it’s very easy for Labour to take the high road in these times, but its own position on exam results hasn’t been clear exactly.

In April, for instance, Angela Rayner, the party’s Deputy now, but Shadow Education Secretary then, criticised predicted grades, telling FE News:

“we have always said predicted grades are not always accurate, and can disproportionately affect the children who need the most support”.

In August 2019, she also said:

“Predicted grades are wrong in the vast majority of cases, and disadvantaged students in particular are losing out on opportunities on the basis of those inaccurate predictions.

Similarly, Kate Green, the now Shadow Education Secretary, was sceptical about predicted grades – and argued for grades to be standardised in July:

“Labour has argued for years that predicted grades already create significant challenges for disadvantaged students, and without fair standardisation and appeals many more students could be unfairly affected by calculated grades. The Government and Ofqual must urgently act to ensure that young people from ethnic minority and disadvantaged backgrounds do not lose out under this system”.

However, she has since called the results a “farce that is incredibly cruel to young people”, adding that teacher-assessed grades were the right way forward.

Indeed, she celebrated their implementation, Tweeting: “Well done to all students, parents and teachers who have campaigned for this u-turn. I am so pleased GCSE & A level results will be on basis of teacher assessment as you and @UK Labour called for.”

For all the horror about England, too, some have pointed out the party’s silence over results in Wales.

On Good Morning Britain, Rayner said the fact that 40 per cent of students had their marks downgraded was “completely unfair” and “completely flawed”. Starmer, too, launched a video which said “The Tories’ incompetent handling of this year’s exams” was “robbing a generation of their future”.

But given that 42 per cent of grades were downgraded in Wales, as a result of a similar algorithm, where was the video about Welsh Labour robbing futures?

For some Tory MPs, Labour’s complaints are too little, too late. 

Robert Halfon, Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, told me: the “opposition parties mostly accepted the grading system that the Government and Ofqual had chosen, as did the trade unions. It’s easier to jump on a bandwagon after the event, but there were very few who were actually calling this out from the beginning.”

His colleague Jonathan Gullis echoed this sentiment, saying: “As a member of the Select Committee, we had spoken with Ofqual, and as I remember there were no serious concerns raised other than making sure that grades would be handed out as fairly as possible in exceptional circumstances.”

Speaking of Starmer, he added “[he] once again jumps on any bandwagon going. We heard nothing from him in the build up to results day about the system; in fact, the Shadow Education Minister, now Deputy Leader, was in favour of what Ofqual was doing. But once again Sir Keir Starmer is more interested in trying to please the people of Twitter and the mainstream media.”

Perhaps the Labour leader knows more about “incompetence” than he thinks…

Phil Taylor: When 88 per cent of students got their first choice university place on results day, was a U-turn really necessary?

18 Aug

Phil Taylor is a Conservative activist and former councillor in Ealing.

Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of school leavers and their parents will have heard Roger Taylor, Ofqual’s mild mannered chairman, on the news yesterday evening, when he rowed back on the regulator’s use of an algorithm-based moderation process for A levels in favour of grades assessed by teachers. They will note his prompted apology bitterly in many cases.

Now thousands of students will have new hope of getting a university place or one closer to their heart.

The irony is that the overall automated process that links together schools, universities and exam boards had done a great job by many measures already. Indeed, 88 per cent of students had got their first choice university place on results day. The number of 18 year olds going to university was at a record high, as was the number of disadvantaged students set to attend.

Now university admissions departments will be thrown into chaos having to find new places for students who qualify, and dealing with those that want to withdraw from safety offers and pursue their original first choice. Many universities had already changed their offers to unconditional ones in anticipation of this crisis, notably Worcester College, Oxford.

The problem for those who care about A levels as a qualification, grade inflation and the ability of universities and employers to identify talent is that teachers estimated 38 per cent of exams were worth an A or A*. This means that, not only is it hard to differentiate between candidates this year, but it puts this cohort at an advantage compared to recent ones. Will fairness demand that almost 40 per cent of exams get the top grades next year?

Who is to blame? Certainly Ofqual. It came up with a technical solution to a complex problem, and was not able to convince the rest of the education sector to back its judgement. Who knows whether that is through lack of transparency on its part or an unwillingness on the part of the teaching profession collectively to accept that moderation is a valid process. The spectacle of schools publishing their own results makes you wonder if there wasn’t some professional muscle-flexing going on.

Sally Collier, Ofqual’s chief executive, has been notably absent from the public debate. Was a career civil servant, rather than an educationalist, the right person to lead this public body? Taylor, an entrepreneur who made his name with the Dr Foster business, has a background in using statistics to drive health outcomes, but again is not an educationalist.

This was bound to be a political hot potato, especially in August when not much else is in the news. The politics of students waving their attenuated results around was always going to be incendiary. The vast majority of them and their families will be happily planning for the start of term, but the media and the opposition were always going find enough unhappy students to make a silly season crisis. The political failure was to not realise that Ofqual had not done the necessary job of persuasion itself to make its solution stick.

Once again, we have seen an organ of the British state fail to rise to a crisis. Whether it is the Met Police in the 2011 riots, the London Fire Brigade at Grenfell, or Public Health England in pandemic planning and managing Covid testing, we have too many examples of state bodies trundling along doing business as usual but unable to flex at speed to deal with a crisis.

Williamson’s fight against grade inflation will be long and painful

14 Aug

From the moment the Government decided that this year’s school exams would not take place, it had set itself a horribly complicated challenge fraught with political danger.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, it is difficult to see what the ‘right’ answer is. Trying to hand out grades based on cancelled exams is like trying to issue medals for a cancelled Olympics. No matter how clever the maths is, people are going to be unhappy.

Few people, if any, seem to have grasped in advance the scale of the problem. If anything, Gavin Williamson and his team have caught a lucky break in that the SNP administration in Edinburgh ran spectacularly aground on this same reef right in front of them.

Cue some frantic tacking, with ministers unveiling a(nother) ‘triple lock’, with pupils able to choose between their awarded grades, the results of their mock exams, or to sit the actual exams in the autumn.

On the face of it, this is an improvement on Nicola Sturgeon’s response, which was to spend the best part of a week defending the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s decision to adjust grades based on a school’s past performance (essentially dooming bright children from disadvantaged areas) before capitulating completely and simply accepting the implausibly rosy estimates offered by teachers in full.

But it’s far from perfect. There are allegations that the system used for estimating grades favours private schools, with their smaller cohorts. Then there’s the mind-boggling fact that because individual schools are being graded on a curve, a successful appeal against poor grades by one pupil has a knock-on effect on every other pupil at that school.

(It really is almost impossible to overstate how insane that last part is.)

The potential for political toxicity is enormous. At its worst, this story could become a sort of antimatter version of the usual blondes-jumping-for-joy stories that usually accompany results day. As the Scottish Nationalists have discovered, defending the overall integrity of the system creates lots of concrete losers whilst abstracting the gains – the ultimate losing formula.

And whereas the Scottish Government could at least bring a guillotine down on the issue by capitulating, the Prime Minister may not have such luck. Pupils are going to have to wait a week to even find out what the appeals process is – it hasn’t been designed yet – and it will be overseen not by a single qualifications body but by several exam boards. Then we potentially have to repeat the whole saga for GCSEs.

Given that these exams were cancelled months ago, it isn’t unfair to suggest (although acknowledging that nobody really seems to have grasped how big a problem this would be) that the Department for Education should have worked out a plan by now. When the dust finally settles, this will join the flailing effort to get schools open on the long, long list of failures of the state to be picked over post-pandemic.

But from where we are now, what can Williamson do? On the one hand, the current arrangements seem to hold so much potential political pain that some adjustments (or u-turns, as you prefer) seem likely.

Yet the Education Secretary has come out very hard against grade inflation, which would make it extremely difficult to copy Sturgeon and simply swallow predicted grades wholesale. Ofqual has claimed that without a standard benchmark different schools have been applying different standards, with a minority submitting ‘vastly inflated’ predictions. According to the regulator: “A rare few centres put in implausibly high judgments, including one which submitted all A* and A grades for students in two subjects, where previously there had been normal distribution.”

This is precisely what happened in Scotland, where SQA were responding to predicted grades which suggested a year-on-year improvement in Scottish school performance of 20 per cent. When Sturgeon said this wasn’t ‘credible’, she was correct.

There are more or less charitable interpretations for why predicted grades are so high. Sam Freeman suggests it is because “teachers’ are assessing their view of capability and exams assess actual performance”, so teachers are offering what they think is the upper bound of the grades their pupils will accept – a position which itself demands some form of moderation.

A more cynical view, which underpins the neglected cause of Conservative education reform, is that this is what usually happens when the ‘Blob’ is left to mark its own homework, which is why much of the education establishment is so bitterly opposed to such exams in the first place. For this reason, Ministers will likely be unmoved by those calling for the return of coursework and the AS Level, which might have provided a broader evidence base from which to respond to a once-in-several-generations pandemic but otherwise simply increase the year-on-year opportunities for educators to put their thumb on the scales.

Simultaneously doing right by individual school-leavers whilst defending the overall integrity of the results system proved beyond the wit of the Scottish Government. We’ll now find out if Westminster skill, or the will, to do any better.