Much of the coverage of today’s exam results is dominated by disappointed Jacks and furious Jills. Determined parents are planning legal action against predicted grades which they say are inaccurate, unfair and result from a Government/Ofqual safety net that is not fit for purpose. While good state schools and many big-name private schools have done well, sixth form colleges have had a torrid time of it. Worst of all, individual candidates are having their predicted grades policed, statistically, by the historic average performance of their schools. It leaves the exceptional pupil, who burst a blood vessel or two to succeed, being down-graded. 'You can’t have done that well because no one else has ever done that well!' It is a criminal example of the madness of the average operating at the expense of the exceptional.
On the upside, there are many children who have done as well as they were expected to, and a number who have done even better than they dared dream they might: top grades are up, again.
Universities, suffering from under-subscription not least from overseas students, say they will offer the generous hand of help; generous it will be because, as the BBC’s education editor Branwen Jeffreys observes, higher education has become a buyer’s market. Clearing will be a busy place and may hold even more hope this year than in recent times.
To disappointed candidates, and their parents, it will feel like a catastrophe. In the context of a lifetime of three score years and ten, however, it is only a fleeting moment. In years to come, most of these young folk won’t even remember the grades they got, let alone those they felt they should have got. Few will have endured a truly life-limiting set-back and talk of ‘a lost generation’ is as cruel as it is foolish.
I wrote last night how my own four children chopped and changed at this phase of their lives; how courses and university choices were swapped, even at the last minute; how sixth form places were denied on the basis of wrong GCSE predictions but how the son in question went on to thrive at A Level in a sixth form college and to create a successful business; and how an apprenticeship took another son into a successful equestrian career.
What worries me more is the view that may be building in many of these young minds of the adult world they are about to enter. Of course there is a Covid-19 dimension to all of this: it is the theme music to all their problems. It shut their schools, unless they were the off-spring of key-workers or had special needs.
Many of their teachers are in trade unions that seemed to be doing all they could to stop their schools re-opening. Other teachers, and especially heads, were demonstrably tireless in doing the best they could by these innocent victims of an educational furlough. The children were promised the educational kit of the 21st century if they didn’t have it: but in many schools, no laptops and no iPads arrived. Pledges of home-education support programmes were, at best, thin on the ground.
They knew, back in March, that their public examinations – across the UK – were cancelled but they had to wait months to know how this vacuum would be filled. Even then, at the last moment, the rules were changed for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, following the debacle in Scotland. From the top, apologies came aplenty but no one resigned. All of this is happening at a time when there are discernible and worrying up-ticks in the Covid-19 data. There are claims that among the worst offenders in the breach of social distancing rules are the young.
‘Kids’, I hear you say. Irresponsible, devil may care, good time seekers. In my experience, that is too simple and it is unfair. The majority want to do well. They also want to do what is right. That is helped by clear leadership: at home, in schools and from the state. If the rules chop and change, the leaders duck and dive, and the pledges are simply not delivered on it may not be surprising if many of the ‘kids’ shrug much of it off. I do not think for a moment we are writing the prologue to the chronicles of a lost generation. I fear, however, that we are seeing a back-drop of indecision, buck-passing and even incompetence that will leave this generation more contemptuous of leadership and authority than any I can think of before.
Whatever the predicted grades they may have been awarded by us, the adult electorate, I wonder how this generation might grade this Government, its Ministers, its civil servants, and its regulators? To win them back to trusting in how we run a pluralist, democratic society, ‘must try harder’ is the least of it.