From education to employment

The GCSE and A-levels fiasco exposes inequalities in our education system

Rae Tooth is chief executive of Villiers Park Educational Trust

After a turbulent fortnight of unprecedented examination awards, GCSE results day went relatively smoothly. But make no mistake: the whole process has been shambolic, and has exposed major challenges and unanswered questions which need to be urgently addressed.

In England, it has raised serious questions about the role of ministers, including the education secretary, as well as the Department for Education and Ofqual. And similar issues have arisen across the rest of the UK.

For the first time in what felt like an age, we managed to go through a whole day without any major surprises or U-turns. Overall GCSE grades rose, with 78.8 per cent being at 4 or above, compared to 69.9 per cent in 2019.

This came after the government inevitably bowed to the pressure from Villiers Park and others and used the grades awarded by schools – and the teachers who know their students best of all – instead of Ofqual’s poorly-conceived algorithm.

At long last, schools minister Nick Gibb apologised for the “pain, anxiety and uncertainty” caused to young people. Although it was staggering to hear him continue to insist that the flawed algorithm used for A-level results was “fair” and did not result in disadvantaged young people’s grades dropping significantly more than their peers – in contrast to the findings of Ofqual’s own analysis.

Using centre-assessed grades was by no means a perfect solution: some schools will have taken a more cautious approach to grading students than others, meaning some students may have unfairly been short-changed in comparison with their peers.

However, given the problematic scenario our schools and colleges have faced, trusting the grades given by our teachers was the best option available and the right thing to do.

As Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, put it, students can now be confident that grades are a result of “teacher expertise” and not concocted using “an algorithm in a shady room in Coventry”.

But there are structural inequalities built into our education system which have been highlighted by recent events:

1. The inaccurate perception that vocational education is second-class

In spite of the behind-the-scenes machinations in Whitehall, GCSE and A-level results were published on time. Yet BTEC results were pulled the day before they were due to be issued.

While it is understandable that awarding body, Pearson, felt the need to make last-minute changes in the light of decisions made by government, students taking vocational qualifications are left in limbo while their peers taking academic programmes already have their results.

This is unacceptable. It only serves to reinforce the inaccurate perception that vocational education is second-class – a perception which must be challenged with actions, not just words. Young people deserve better.

2. The widening the attainment gap

Serious questions remain as to what will happen next year and beyond. With many months of learning lost for all students, the risk is that exams could become more a measure of how long individual students were in lockdown or whether they had access to learning at home, as opposed to what they are capable of.

How will these students be supported over the loss of schooling, which will only widen the attainment gap? Villiers Park is working hard to fill in the gaps, but a broader solution backed with significant investment is required.

3. The inequality of digital access

There have been some piecemeal initiatives to roll out IT equipment to less advantaged students, but these do not go nearly far enough and in many cases the equipment did not actually reach students. As a result, those young people who start their education at a disadvantage risk falling further and further behind. Villiers Park and others are working hard to address this, but greater government spending and policy focus in improving equality of digital access is needed – and quickly.

Exams car crash

It is symptomatic of the whole exams car crash that the Department for Education has belatedly insisted it has “full confidence” in Ofqual, hours after education secretary Gavin Williamson had repeatedly failed to back the under-siege regulator in a TV interview. At Villiers Park we certainly do not have confidence in how the government has treated disadvantaged students throughout this process. And this causes us to worry about the future for those young people.

The problems in our education system run far deeper than exams and assessment. Education outcomes are still very much predicated on family socio-economic circumstances and other markers of disadvantage. The system is tilted toward the most advantaged, even in the state system at school and university level, and inequalities are compounded by the existence of the fee-paying school sector.

Independent inquiry

We unequivocally back calls for an independent inquiry into the exams fiasco – to complement the one being undertaken by the House of Commons Education Select Committee. Young people deserve that those responsible are held to account and, more importantly, that lessons are learned to avoid this damaging and stressful situation ever being repeated.

Additionally, reforms must be put in place to create equity and equality of opportunity for every young person irrespective of their family background and identity – particularly when it comes to the examination system and university admissions process.

Today’s young people are our leaders of the future, and they deserve to be treated so much better. And it has been so encouraging to see the mature and confident manner in which young people coped with the crisis and demand their rights.

Rae Tooth is CEO of Villiers Park Educational Trust, a national social mobility charity

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