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  • Charles E.Cheadle

Gavin Williamson: An 'Art in Incompetence'

This article is written on behalf of all students who have been let down by the current Secretary of Education, Gavin Williamson. Mr Williamson, alumni of the University of Bradford, has a BSc in Social Sciences. However, Mr Williamson should be awarded another qualification. One which truly reflects his capabilities. A degree in the Arts. A BA in the ‘Art of Incompetence’.

To some degree, I sympathise with the difficult position Mr Williamson was in at the start of the first lockdown. As students were unable to sit exams as a result of COVID-19 – the virus making it dangerous for students to assemble in close proximity in an examination hall - he had the difficult task of providing a generation of students, both equitably and consistently, with A-Level results that truly reflected what they were likely to achieve. A mammoth task to generate grades that accurately reflected two years of work, ensuring some students failed to avoid grades being inflated, in turn, diluting their worth, for example, by awarding too many A*s.

In their wisdom, his department devised the idea of using an algorithm which relied on previous scores of individual schools, teacher predicted grades and student GCSE results and other qualifications. With hindsight, this was a terrible idea. Although achieving some of his stated aims; avoiding grade inflation by using a Bell curve of distribution for grades, results day resulted in pandemonium.

Grades were not equitable or consistent amongst different schools. The algorithm disproportionately targeted larger classes, with classes of four or less students less likely to be adversely affected by the algorithm. Consequently, students studying in smaller classes were largely awarded their centre assessed grade. Hence, smaller, often independent schools, appeared to have achieved higher grades than larger state schools. However, this may also have been in part because private schools have historically normally achieved higher exam results and thus were less likely to be downgraded (due to GCSE and AS scores etc). In addition, many students’ results were of a huge range. For instance, a student may have achieved two A*s and an E; obviously, the E is completely out of line with the other grades. One may suggest that two A*s is fantastic – and it certainly is – but coupled with an E means that the student is unlikely to have attained the entry requirements for their chosen university, especially a red brick University, which commonly requires A*s, A's and B's across the board.

Therefore, on results day, many students across the country were heart broken, unjustly missing out on university offers, and forced to go through the stress of clearing. It was a shambles. How Mr Williamson did not foresee this calamity is unfathomable.

Mr Williamson surely should have predicted the turbulence that using an algorithm would cause before grades were published. It was only after student protests, a myriad of teacher and parent complaints, and actions taken by the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales in response to this chaos that prompted Mr Williamson to act; afraid of any further repercussions from government interference with the grading system, allowed all students to receive either their mock grade or their Centre Assessed Grade, in order to avoid further criticism.

However doing this, swung the pendulum in the opposite direction, inflating grades, with most students achieving their university offers, to the extent that almost all universities had to defer many students places by a year. Had Mr Williamson recognised his failures and overcome the hurdle in front of him? No and no.

What about the year group below? Universities were oversubscribed and places for the succeeding year of students limited. Mr Williamson failed to consider this; it was more important for him to find a quick solution in order continue his grasp on power in a senior position, bowing to the demands of student protesters, than it was for him to constructively find a fair solution. A solution that should have been implemented from the start.

In retrospect, Mr Williamson should have recognised that by the start of the first lockdown most students had completed their courses, no longer requiring as much guidance from their teachers. Laptops should have been mass delivered to those without access to one; exams should have taken place online, as examinations are the fairest way of assessing a student’s academic ability; and exams should have started later to allow sufficient time for students to adapt to life in lockdown. Students were trapped at home, giving them no excuse but to revise. Moreover, those students who had worked extremely hard for their A-Levels would have the opportunity to ‘show-off’ in examinations, achieving grades that feel legitimate, fairly differentiating between students of different abilities and work ethics.

Of course, one may suggest that it becomes much easier to cheat if examinations are online, as students cannot be invigilated to the same degree as in an examination hall, and may have access to additional resources. This argument certainly has merit, some element of cheating might be regarded as inevitable. However, it would not have been difficult for Mr Williamson to have created an application for students to sit their exams in real time online, directly typing into a document controlled by the exam boards, similar to sitting the LNAT[1]. This would have allowed students to have been fairly and consistently assessed across the country, importantly, in timed conditions. Anyone who has written under timed conditions will understand that it becomes very hard to cheat - it is time consuming to search for notes (not that I would know!).

Perhaps it is unfair to judge Mr Williamson over these events. These are unprecedented circumstances, difficult for anyone to navigate through, let alone the Secretary of Education. However, Mr Williamson organisation of the 2021 exams has also been truly shambolic. How can a competent education minister, experienced in the failures of the previous year, have no plan B? It seems Mr Williamson went into this academic year relying on the fact that students would be sitting exams without any contingency plans in the event of further Covid-19 outbreaks. Perhaps Boris Johnson’s over-optimistic rhetoric, and regular reassurances that there was “light at the end of the tunnel”, duped Mr Williamson into thinking exams would certainly take place. If the case, this is a tepid excuse.

Exams were cancelled at Christmas, taking around a month for Mr Williamson to simply reiterate what students and their teachers already knew from Mr Johnson’s announcement: grades would be based on teacher assessments. This well-anticipated announcement providing no reassurance for students and contributing to an emerging mental health crisis.

Fast-forward a couple of months, during which both teachers and students were in limbo as to what would happen over crucial exams, it took until the Easter Holidays – 3 weeks before students could be expected to sit their final exams – for exam boards to release ‘additional’ material[2]. Most schools unable to reveal their plans for assessment until this material was released, thus narrowing the scope of time in which students could revise. Students had been informed by this point that they would not be expected to sit the whole course, and thus had wasted time on revision of content which would not be tested. Further, teachers rendered the newly released material useless, as the whole premise of new material was not fulfilled. New material was not released, only previous years questions, formatted in a different style. How examination boards and the government expected this was sufficient is mind boggling. What use is this to a school that had exhausted all the past papers for mocks? Whilst this may be the fault of the examination boards such as AQA, OCR, Edexcel etc… it is Mr Williamson who should be inspecting the process. It seems clear that he does not understand the nuances of examination procedures, and is therefore clearly unfit to be the Secretary of Education.

Having removed responsibility for examination results, Mr Williamson has placed teachers under a great deal of pressure who despise the process, surplus of work and impending sense of fear from pointy-elbowed parents on results day.

[1] The LNAT is the Law National Admissions Test, assessed on a computerised document, students answer a series of multiple-choice questions and write an essay. [2] Additional material refers to extra assessment material, which teachers hoped would be new and unseen to students, creating fair assessments and a level playing field.


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