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I resigned as education secretary over exam marking. Gavin Williamson must now decide if he is fit to lead

It is now clear that the root of this year’s difficulties around GCSE and A-level results was a political determination from ministers

Estelle Morris
Friday 21 August 2020 21:09 BST
GCSE results: Schools minister admits he was warned algorithm might disadvantage poorer pupils, but claims it did not

When the dust settles on the results of this year’s examinations, we ought to ask ourselves how the position arose whereby our children’s futures depend so much on one set of examination papers.

Before Michael Gove’s time as secretary of state at the Department for Education (DfE), external examinations were assessed through a combination of coursework, extended essays and unseen examination papers. This was not perfect, but it did assess a wider range of skills and knowledge over a longer period of time, thereby providing a broader view of the candidate’s abilities.

The move to end-of-course examinations was driven by a distrust of school-based marking and a shift towards what might be called a more traditional curriculum assessed in a more traditional way. We now have a high-stakes examination system with a single point of assessment.

I acknowledge that key assessments can be fraught with difficulties. I know from my own personal experience that any fragility in the public examination system causes intense focus on both the education and politics of the process, and real concern for all involved.

We want examinations that are robust at a national level and fair to every individual. In truth, I doubt that this can be delivered. Even when there is no crisis, some students will feel aggrieved because they thought that their efforts deserved more. Grade boundaries are set to protect the integrity of the national system and can deliver rough justice for individuals. There will always be the candidate, who, on the day, falls on the wrong side of the grade boundary.

It is now clear that the root of this year’s difficulties was a political determination from ministers that there should be no grade inflation. That priority governed subsequent instructions and decisions.

I understand the need to maintain standards over time; it is a perennial challenge. I am, however, incredulous at the way ministers have tried to achieve this.

It would have been straightforward to arrange for examiners – who were not required this year to mark papers – to check a sample of each school’s centre-assessed grades. This type of moderation is understood within the education system and could have resolved some obvious problems at an early stage. It would have shored up confidence and overcome the fears, that many have, that teachers can be over-optimistic.

Ministers – of all political parties – demand rapid improvement and threaten draconian measures should schools not meet them. In tying each school’s results to previous performance, ministers have resurrected the attitude that low achievement in some schools is inevitable.

GCSE grades surge after U-turn gives pupils results based on teachers’ estimates

They have delivered a blow to the thousands of teachers who go to work each day believing that significant year-on-year improvement is possible, and they have undermined those determined young people who are convinced that they can do better than those who have gone before them.

Politics and education are inextricably linked in this crisis, but the solution has to focus on getting the education bit right. Whether it is the funding of extra places in universities and colleges, supporting students who are accepted on to courses, then struggle, or making sure that next year’s cohort aren’t unfairly treated, it’s the detail of making a damaged system work that has to be the priority.

I sense more politics than education in the approach of Gavin Williamson. The reticence to acknowledge the problem, his lack of grasp of the detail, and the constant shifting of blame are more to do with political positioning than anything else.

In 2002, I resigned my role as secretary of state for education, following an A-level marking crisis. By the time I left, we had agreed and implemented the solution to the problem, but I judged that the incident had damaged my credibility to lead the department in the future.

No two sets of circumstances are identical, but Williamson must remember and reflect that when all this is dealt with, how he has led the education system through this crisis will influence people’s views of his suitability to lead it in the future.

He could learn a lesson or two from his junior minister, Nick Gibb. I rarely agree with Gibb on school policy, but his interviews during this time of crisis have at least showed knowledge and a willingness to engage.

This summer’s crisis ought not to be just one more consequence of the pandemic. We talk about the importance of a broad curriculum, but our every action tells students that all that really counts is the examination.

How seriously do universities look at the student statement? Should they interview more applicants? When do we show how much we value achievements in music, sport or community commitment? We say that a rounded education is the aim, but our actions show otherwise.

We must, in the immediate term, restore confidence in the present system, but if we stop there, we will have failed to learn all the lessons of the last six months.

Baroness Morris of Yardley has been a Labour life peer since 2005. She was secretary of state for education and skills from 2001 to 2002 and Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley from 1992 to 2005

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