Education secretary 'ignoring' warnings that poor and ethnic minority pupils will suffer when predicted grades replace exams

Runnymede Trust says under-fire Gavin Williamson was alerted in April, telling MPs: 'We still haven’t had a response'

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Wednesday 10 June 2020 11:17
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Gavin Williamson accused of ignoring warnings of predicted grades bias for poor/BAME students

Gavin Williamson has been accused of ignoring warnings that poorer and ethnic minority pupils will suffer when “estimated grades” replace formal exams this summer.

The under-fire education secretary was urged to recognise the danger of “unintentional bias” penalising GCSE and A-level students – but has failed to respond, the Runnymede Trust told MPs.

Academics and teachers’ leaders united in warning that boys, poorer pupils and those from black and ethnic minority (BAME) backgrounds are likely to receive lower calculated grades.

“The worry is that, unintentionally, teachers will underestimate sometimes the academic potential of poorer pupils, particularly those from black backgrounds,” said Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), agreed, saying: “Middle-class people sometimes underestimate working-class people and black kids”, and adding: “There is bias.”

And Dr Zubaida Haque, interim director of the Runnymede Trust, said it urged Mr Williamson to issue urgent guidance to teachers in April, adding: “We still haven’t had a response.”

MPs on the Commons education committee poured scorn on the plan to deny appeals against the grades awarded unless parents could somehow prove discrimination.

The rule would make appeals the “preserve of those parents who are more well-heeled and articulate, with the sharpest elbows”, warned Labour’s Ian Mearns.

And Robert Halfon, the committee’s Conservative chairman, said: “It is extraordinary that the appeals process is based on so-called bias and not on the marks of the grade.

“How on earth is a student going to know if there has been some sort of bias or discrimination?”

Mr Williamson is already facing a storm of criticism after scrapping plans to reopen primary schools to all pupils before September and failing to set out alternative plans to stop children falling further behind.

About 700,000 disadvantaged children are not doing homework and did not have proper access to computers or the internet, figures show – after promised laptops failed to arrive.

The committee’s inquiry is being held after a survey for the Times Educational Supplement found that only 39 per cent of teachers believe the calculated grades system will be fair.

Ms Haque of the Runnymede Trust, a race equality think-tank, said teachers were being asked to rank students without any formal guidance from the department – despite three letters it had sent.

She described the system as “untried, untested and unevaluated”, adding: “That’s a serious concern. There is a lot of well-documented evidence about some of the unintentional as well as intentional biases.”

Prof Major warned of “stereotyping” as well as penalising students who “left it to the last minute”.

But Sally Collier, chief regulator at the exam regulator Ofqual, said the system had been redesigned for extraordinary times, insisting: “We think the system this year is absolutely the fairest possible in the circumstances.”

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