Government made it easier for rich kids to make the grade

Last week’s covid-hit A level and GCSE results demonstrate huge disparities in our schools, particularly in Croydon, writes KEN TOWL

Top grade: a larger proportion of pupils got As and A*s this year than ever before

Can we please stop talking about grade inflation?

Sure, when the examination results were announced last week, at A level, there were more A and A* grades this year (44 per cent) than last year (38 per cent), and much, much more than in 2019, the last year that conventional Victorian exams took place (when only 25 per cent got As or A*s), but if we are not comparing like with like, then we are really not comparing at all.

And while politicians will always try to bathe in the reflected glow of exam success, we owe it to two groups of people, pupils and teachers, to recognise this year’s achievement for what it is: an improvement on the exam system.

Teachers making the grade judgements were not generous. They were accurate.

We all knew that our TAGs (teacher assessed grades) were liable to be scrutinised. Schools all around the country set up robust systems to ensure that they would be able to present evidence to justify every pupil’s grades.

Accordingly, teachers, mindful that their work might be randomly selected for marking, took great pains to mark accurately according to nationally recognised set criteria. In my school at least, every piece of work selected for use as evidence was moderated, checked by another member of staff.

Pupils, aware that their work would be used as evidence, focused their minds on it.

The last-minute nature of the Department for Education’s about-turn on exams in the covid-blighted 2020-2021 academic year meant that the content of A level and GCSE courses was reduced – we had to move very quickly to set up reliable evidence collection systems – and so pupils could focus more of their efforts on a reduced content. This allowed for both greater depth and a more realistic representation of their understanding of the course they were studying.

Like other key workers, teachers were at work all the way through every day of lockdown after lockdown. There were no days off, no snow days for teachers (nor, will there be snow days in future now that we have all adapted to online and “blended” learning).

But here is the crux of the problem. Not all pupils have benefited equally from this improved assessment process.

While in some schools the shift to the virtual classroom was smooth, in others, to different extents, there were barriers to learning. Some families either had a compatible laptop or tablet device, or could get one easily enough. Other homes were landed with, for example, a handful of children and one mobile phone with limited data rental between them.

Locally, Croydon Central MP Sarah Jones lent her voice to charities and businesses that stepped to try to reduce the “digital divide”. All around the country, teachers delivered laptops to their students, doing the government’s job for it, just as they have now had to do the exam boards’ job.

Some homes are big enough to provide children, and their siblings, with a good place to work; some are not. Thus the advantages and disadvantages that naturally occur in our society were exacerbated by the virus. It is a commonplace now to say that the virus has not affected all of us equally.

That inequality is evident for all to see in Croydon, as the council’s own A level figures show.

In Croydon, the A and A* pass rate was 34 per cent, compared to that national figure of 44per cent. So when Alisa Flemming, the council’s cabinet member for children, young people and learning releases a statement congratulating young people for “strong results… with a rise in top grades mirroring a nationwide trend”, she is half right. Croydon results have improved, but so have results all around the country, and Croydon is still behind.

And until we close the digital divide, itself an indicator of wider disparities of wealth in our society, then Croydon will have to play catch up with the rest of the country.

This is all the more apparent if we look at the A/A* pass rates for fee-paying schools:
2019 44%
2020 61%
2021 70%

Of course, private schools have historically performed better than state schools. Parents pay fees for a reason, after all. It does, however, look as if fee-paying schools have done particularly well out of this year’s hastily thrown-together (and extremely vaguely described) assessment programme.

Fully comp: Gavin Williamson’s late U-turn on exams caused massive problems for many

The Sutton Trust has found that there was a wide variety of assessment methods employed by schools and that, based on a survey of more than 3,000 teachers, fee-paying schools were more likely to “use a wider variety of assessments, including giving prior access to questions and ‘open book’ assessments.

“Some parents may also have tried to influence assessments, 23per cent of teachers at private schools said parents had approached or pressured them about their child’s grades this year, compared to 17 per  cent at state schools with affluent intakes, and just 11 per cent at the least affluent.”

It is no great surprise that parents who make additional payments for their children’s education are a tad more inclined to try to get their money’s worth from teachers. It is perhaps a little more concerning that students in fee-paying schools were given more support in terms of which topics would be in assessments.

Much of this is the fault of a government department run by Gavin Williamson (a product, incidentally, of a comprehensive education, a rarity in Boris Johnson’s cabinet) and the reluctance of Johnson to make contingency plans.

As late as February this year, the government announced to the youth of Britain that, instead of the planned exams, “Teachers will be able to use evidence about your performance gathered throughout your course to inform their judgement. This might include work that you have already completed, mock exam results, homework or in-class tests. Your teachers may also use questions from exam boards, largely based on past papers, to help assess you, but this won’t be compulsory.”

Thus teachers (in reality school management) could be quite selective about which evidence would be used and how much support they were able to give to students. Inevitably, there would be a great deal of variety in assessment methodology between schools. In fact, there may well have been a variety of practices even between departments within schools.

Comparing this year with last year and the year before tells us very little except perhaps that one assessment method results in a different outcome to another assessment method. What is more interesting is to compare results across schools in 2021 and see how inequalities in society are likely to be aggravated by a system that disproportionately favours the well-off.

And the covid effect is not over yet. Apart from the potential for more disruption when schools go back in September in our new mask-free, socially-undistanced society, there is a GCSE cohort that has had to deal with two years of disruption (during what is essentially a two-year course) and an A level cohort who have not taken GCSEs and have no experience of external exams.

The school playing fields do look like levelling up any time soon.

  • Ken Towl is a regular contributor to Inside Croydon, lives in Addiscombe and works as a secondary school teacher

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2 Responses to Government made it easier for rich kids to make the grade

  1. Fair point. But does anyone really think that last year’s students were the brightest in history? It’s just not credible, especially as students were all deprived of decent face-to-face teaching. The best measure for schools, imho, is ‘added value’ where you look at achievements beyond what the tests at 11 predicted. These stats are vey rarely shared and are waaay more valuable that the bald league tables.

  2. Ian Kierans says:

    Very well said – the digital divide does cover more than education though and is made worse by Councils forcing those without internet into being non residents with no means to raise anything at all to this Council and not a peep from Councillors responsible. Sad how they view their roles including those that are school governors.

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