Government's last minute exams u-turn is 'complete fiasco', Keir Starmer says

Ministers had months to find workable solution, Labour leader says

Kate Devlin
Whitehall Editor
Wednesday 12 August 2020 12:40
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Changes to how exams are decided are 'shambolic', says Keir Starmer

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has accused ministers of failing to solve the looming exams crisis with flawed proposals that will not work.

Sir Keir said ministers had known about the problem for months but instead of finding an effective solution had presided over a “complete fiasco”.

In a bid to head off a damaging row, ministers have proposed changes to the way results will be assessed just hours before A-level results are due to be released tomorrow.

Students will now be able to use their results in mock tests to appeal if they are unhappy with the grades they are given.

The move comes in the wake of a dramatic U-turn by the Scottish Government earlier this week. Scottish ministers have abandoned plans to downgrade more than 124,000 results effective predicted by their teachers.

England still plans to use a similar system to modify A-level and GCSE results, however, leading to warnings of chaos as thousands of pupils challenge their grades.

Under the government plans, pupils will also still be able to sit exams this autumn if they are unhappy with either their predicted or mock grades.

All three will hold the same value with universities, colleges and employers, the Department for Education (DfE) said.

Nick Gibb, the schools minister for England, has acknowledged that ministers are "concerned" about what had happened in Scotland, but insisted there would be no similar U-turn south of the border.

But critics have warned that the use of mock grades will create more chaos in the system.

Some schools run mocks as early as October, while others delay the process until as late as March, meaning some pupils did not sit them at all this year because of the coronavirus crisis.

Schools also use mocks in different ways - with some providing a confidence boost for students and others making the exams deliberately difficult to encourage pupils to study.

Sir Keir warned the use of mock exams would not solve the crisis. He also criticised the system which in some cases will see schools have to appeal on a pupil's behalf.

He said: "This is a complete fiasco. It was obvious that this was going to be difficult but it's been weeks or months in the coming.

"To have an 11th-hour decision that's caused widespread chaos amongst teachers I have been speaking to, families and young people - it smacks of incompetence."

Speaking in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, he cited predictions that up to 40 per cent of young people could have their grades downgraded.

"And this risks robbing them of their future,” he said.

"There has to be a basis for individual young people to be able to appeal against the grading.”

He warned the idea of using mock results was “deeply flawed”.

"Talking to teachers today, it's obvious that they expect, across the piece, that young people will do better in the real exam than they'd done in the mock.

"It's not going to work, it's not going to wash."

"The cause for concern here is that, if this is anything like Scotland, it will be the more deprived areas where the grades are downgraded. And that's simply not acceptable.”

He also called on ministers to force universities to be flexible in how they choose which young people to admit.

Earlier this week ministers wrote to institutions pleading with them to hold places for students appealing their downgraded results.

Mr Gibb also raised fears few pupils would benefit from the new measures when he said only a "small number" of students would be affected by the change.

He denied the system was chaotic, telling BBC Breakfast: "There is no confusion. We have been very clear from the very beginning. We had to have a system in place to award qualifications to young people given that we had cancelled the exams."

"We apologise to nobody for finding solutions, even at the 11th hour, to stop any student being disadvantaged by this system."

The reforms were condemned as "panicked and chaotic" by a union leader representing school heads.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the plan created the potential for "massive inconsistency" as mock exams are not standardised.

He said: "The idea of introducing at the 11th hour a system in which mock exam results trump calculated grades beggars belief.

"Schools and colleges have spent months diligently following detailed guidance to produce centre-assessed grades, only to find they might as well not have bothered.

"If the Government wanted to change the system it should have spent at least a few days discussing the options rather than rushing out a panicked and chaotic response."

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