The exam U-turn is welcome, but there is still nothing equal in how children experienced the pandemic

I can only hope the government are already thinking about how they will manage exams next year for those who have missed out on months and months of tuition

Jess Phillips
Monday 17 August 2020 18:54 BST
Ofqual chairman Roger Taylor says exam regulator took the "wrong road" on A-level and GCSE grading

On my A-level results day I met Victoria Beckham.

She and Dane Bowers (one time member of boyband Another Level, which no one remembers and I had to google it) were touring around the country promoting their garage single, Out of Your Mind, and we happened upon them on a bar in Birmingham city centre while we crawled around the town in celebration of our success. I can’t imagine this year’s cohort of young people went out on the tiles to celebrate their university acceptance or the first days of the rest of their lives. For this year’s A-level students it must feel as if their trajectory towards a successful career is more Dane Bowers than Victoria Beckham.

My inbox is brimming with awful stories of bright kids from Birmingham Yardley who have worked incredibly hard, pulled up their socks, got on their bikes, did all those things that Tory ministers past and present pretend to promote as if where you are born and what your parents do for a living has absolutely nothing to do with where you might end up. They dared to dream, and applied to great universities, they wanted to study classics, medicine, dentistry, art history. They got in, the first of their families to head off to dreamy spires or campuses with big clocks and grand halls. Only to be told that, sorry, “Computer says no!” There are genuinely kids in my constituency who could design a better system and frankly they may have just missed out on the chance.

The government has of course today made a screeching U-turn after the education secretary said, “No this is it. No U-turn” just days ago. The young people, the teachers, the parents, the Labour Party and the media all highlighted the stories of kids failed by the flawed system. All together we demanded that teacher-predicted grades should be followed. It was so obviously clear to anyone taking even a brief look at the system that following the predictions was the only possible solution. The government essentially said to millions of parents up and down the country, “You know those people who every day we ask you to entrust with the care and education of your children, your most precious people, yeah well we don’t trust them.”

How on earth was this allowed to happen? Why the hell did someone not think to ask the question months ago if the models that they were using would disadvantage state school kids, or bright kids from struggling schools? Maybe they knew it and didn’t care, maybe they just didn’t think to ask. Either way they are negligent.

None of this was unpredictable. For the alleged super forecasters in government, perhaps I might suggest that lurking around weird blogs on the internet should have been replaced with just watching the news and seeing what happened in Scotland, where poorer, clever kids were doubly damned. The government have had since March to be sorting this out. Which bright spark thought it was a good idea to wait until university place deadlines were looming to release this disaster?

This crisis is not over. It is now firmly at the door of the hallowed halls of the country’s universities. Universities may very well have given away the places that the kids in my constituency had won fair and square. Reports are emerging already of how this year’s university intake will be the poshest cohort for many years, with kids from private schools making up even more of the numbers than normal. Are they just going to start kicking out people who had already secured a place through clearing? Watch out for the government seeking to move this blame on to university vice chancellors, but make no mistake this is entirely their own doing.

It was only after the Labour Party put pressure on the government that they decided that they would waive the fee for appealing grade decisions. Before that, Gavin Williamson and Boris Johnson were more than happy for kids who might be living in B&Bs because they are homeless, or whose parents have just lost their jobs because they worked at Birmingham Airport, to be shelling out for someone else’s mistake.

Their reactionary, changeable policy making is harming people’s lives and speaks to a complete lack of care and competence. I can only hope, as a parent of a child in the middle of his GCSEs, that they are already thinking about how they will manage this next year for all the kids doing GCSE and A-Levels who have missed out on months and months of tuition. However, this is probably the triumph of hope over experience as in fact I super-forecast that Gavin Williamson, still in his job, will be apologising five days after next year’s results days when privately educated kids who had tuition throughout the pandemic massively skew the grading benchmarking, damning kids like my son and other state school kids in Birmingham

Honestly at this stage, I would rather have Dane Bowers from Another Level in charge of my children’s futures than Gavin Williamson, who clearly thinks everyone should stay on the level they were born into. Levelling up it ain’t.

Jess Phillips is the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding and Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley

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