Samantha Smith

A level students have been failed again

A level students have been failed again
A student receives her A level grades, 2020 (Photo: Getty)
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The world was turned upside down in 2020. Schools closed, shops shut, and planes were grounded as the global health crisis hit the world. The great institutions of our society seemed to crumble under the pressure of the pandemic. This was particularly the case for the UK’s education system, which is still failing students 18 months on.

This morning, students will be receiving their A level grades, after a year of learning interrupted by constant lockdowns. I can sympathise with students this year – I experienced first-hand the devastation caused by last year’s A level algorithm fiasco.

After the algorithm gave me a B, E and U, I was rejected by both my first and second choice universities. While the government did U-turn a week later and switched to teacher assessed grades for some students, it was too late for me and thousands of other young people who saw their hard work dashed by what an algorithm thought we ‘ought’ to achieve.

The reality of my situation was crushing. To not have the opportunity to sit my exams after years of work seemed like some sort of cruel joke.

After becoming homeless at 16, I worked hard to continue my studies, held down three minimum-wage jobs to keep food in my mouth and clothes on my back, studied in coffee shops and fast food restaurants and moved from sofa to sleeping bag every night. However, in the end, the algorithm decided my grades, depriving myself and others of the opportunity to prove our potential.

Given the harm caused to young people last year, it was not surprising to see the government promise that it would learn lessons this year. The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said that exams were the ‘only way’ to fairly assess young people’s capacity for success and promised that last year’s artificial A level results were a once-in-a-generation occurrence that would not be repeated.

I personally took this assurance to heart and decided to ‘re-sit’ my exams this year to improve my grades.

Sadly, this would be yet another broken promise from the Department for Education. This January, Gavin Williamson U-turned once again and announced that teacher-assessed grades would decide the fate of the Class of 2021.

This system does little to benefit students. The A level algorithm was disastrous, but teacher-assessed grades are not much better.

This will be the second year of ‘record’ results as teacher assessed marks cannot prevent grade inflation. In 2020, the proportion of students awarded A* and A grades swelled from 25.5 to 38.5 per cent after the government attempted to balance out the extremely low grades awarded by the algorithm.

While such results may look good on paper, this has only devalued the qualifications students receive.

I have already heard employers say that they ‘wouldn’t hire someone from the 2020/21 cohort’ for the simple fact that they do not trust the grades that these students were awarded. Combine this with a higher education system that is increasingly treating young people like consumers – delivering a half-hearted university experience with online learning and academic strike action – and the picture becomes increasingly bleak.

Put simply, a system that relies on teacher assessment is inherently disadvantageous and practically incompatible with success for students in the long-term.

In an effort to provide some degree of standardisation across exam centres, the Department for Education has said that centres should assess candidates by taking into consideration a ‘range of evidence’ such as homework, assessments and coursework so that they can give an assessed grade.

I don’t doubt that many teachers have their students’ best interests at heart and will grade them accordingly. However, it is unrealistic to expect such a vague assessment scheme to produce a consistent set of results across the country.

Not every student has a pre-existing relationship with an exam centre, including private candidates and those outside of formal education. Teaching and curriculum content varies from school-to-school, as does quality of learning. While some pupils see their teachers every day, others may only receive sporadic contact. Certain centres will have a framework in place to prevent over-inflation of grades, but many will not.

The system is not robust enough to mitigate the many variables that arise from teacher-assessed grades. This means that students who are already at a disadvantage – those for whom the odds were already stacked against – will likely be the ones who are punished the most.

The pandemic has produced countless casualties, but the consequences of exam cancellations will continue to follow the Class of 2020/21 long after social distancing, masks and self-isolation fade into the past. It is vital that the government, Ofqual and universities mitigate the inequality that will surely follow once students open the brown envelopes that contain their grades at 8am.

Exams may not be pleasant, but they are a necessary evil. Teacher-assessed grades are not a permanent solution, nor should they be touted as the Hail Mary some believe them to be.