The Tories regard a return to rigorously marked exams as one of their big achievements in education. In 2010, the year they took office, more than a third of A-level entries received an A or A* grade. By 2019, following an overhaul of the curriculum, only a quarter did. Despite the havoc wreaked by Covid on education, the government was determined to carry on this trend. That’s why last year, after exams were scrapped, the Department for Education tried to further control grade inflation by using an algorithm. It worked, in part, by assessing the past results of schools — but a consequence was that exceptional pupils from historically underperforming schools were marked down. This seemed very unfair and the backlash was swift.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson rapidly abandoned the system. Pupils were instead given the grades that their teachers predicted for them. The government decided this was the least-worst solution to the problems caused by lockdowns and the deficiencies — and disparities — of remote learning.
This policy is in use again this year as the problems of remote learning remain. It hasn’t caused the immediate backlash that the algorithm did, but it has created other issues. The number of entries getting an A* or an A has risen to almost 45 per cent. The attainment gap between private and state schools has widened too; some 70 per cent of private school pupils received an A* or an A, up from 44 per cent in 2019.
The level of grade inflation is, as one cabinet minister puts it, the ‘most predictable crisis ever’. The government isn’t even trying to pretend that this year’s results are comparable with pre-pandemic times. It is simply not credible to think that shutting schools for long periods would lead to an almost 75 per cent increase in the numbers getting an A or above. But as so often with Covid, it leaves us with the question: how do we get back to normal? Next year’s exams certainly won’t be a return to normality, and without action it could take a decade to return to full and rigorous assessments.
Teacher-assessed grades mean that universities are faced with far more students who have met their offers than in normal times. Pre-pandemic, 46 per cent of pupils made their offer at the University of Bristol; this year 75 per cent did. One of the ways universities are coping is by encouraging students to take a gap year. Some are even offering cash incentives to defer. For this reason — and the fact that the education of those in the year below has been disrupted too — it wouldn’t be fair for exams to simply snap back to normal next year. That would leave the class of 2022 competing for university places against those who have benefitted from 2021’s more generous system. Already the government has consulted on mitigations for next year’s exams, including informing pupils in advance of the topics their papers will focus on.
If it did take a decade to get back to pre-Covid grading, universities would almost certainly respond by introducing their own entrance tests. But elite universities running their own entrance tests would create other issues. It would benefit those schools and sixth forms that regularly send large numbers of pupils to top universities and disadvantage pupils applying from schools without that experience.
The idea of abandoning the current method of grading is rapidly rising up the agenda. The appeal of moving to a system of grading A-levels on a numerical scale of 1 to 9 has not been lost on senior figures in the Department for Education. It would enable rigour to be rapidly restored rather than waiting years for grade inflation to wash out of the system. Such a change could not be introduced straight away. But it would be possible to have it in place for the 2023 exam season.
A further attraction is that it would bring A-level grading into line with GCSEs, which have already moved to the 1 to 9 system. This transition is seen as a success in government. One benefit is that it allows more differentiation at the top: a 9 works as, in effect, a double A* grade.
This is, of course, predicated on the assumption that teaching won’t be disrupted in the coming years and that there’ll be no repeat of school closures. One government source says that ‘only in the most doomsday scenario — full lockdowns’ would there be a return to teacher-assessed grades.
There is now more confidence in government that such an outcome will be avoided than before the 19 July re-opening. Cases have not surged in the way that many ministers feared that they would; the new Health Secretary Sajid Javid’s warning that infections might rise to 100,000 a day seems to have been wrong. The numbers have ticked up slightly in the past week but they are not yet at a level to cause renewed concern.
There are some worries, though, about what could happen to case numbers when schools return. The UK has only recently approved the vaccination of 16- and 17-year-olds and is not yet recommending that all over-12s get the jab. But, as Philip Thomas wrote in The Spectator last week, the fact that the third wave peaked earlier than many expected may well be down to higher levels of immunity among children than had been accounted for.
The grade inflation issue is an example of one of the big problems that the government will face in this parliament: the consequences of Covid will take years to work their way through the system. The most dramatic example is the NHS waiting list. This week, Javid again cautioned that the number of delayed patients coming forward could take hospital waiting lists to 13 million.
Throughout the Covid crisis, the public has been prepared to cut the government quite a bit of slack in its handling of the situation. But whether voters will be as sympathetic when problems are still apparent a year or more after the emergency has ended is another question altogether.