10 December 2020
By John Watson
Gavin Williamson may not be good at jokes but his proposal to make this year’s public exams easier, to reflect the difficulties faced by pupils, seems to have been broadly welcomed. A Christmas present for hard pressed students, perhaps? At the Shaw Sheet we are suspicious of that sort of thing, so perhaps we’d better look this particular gift horse carefully in the mouth.
Let’s start with the problem. Children have had their studies disrupted this year, a year which for some of them is crucial in establishing their future careers. That creates “unfairness” in two quite different respects. It puts them as a generation at a disadvantage to those whose exams were taken in normal years. It also exacerbates the difference in performance between those who, whether because of their characters or that of their schools or homes, are good at online study and those who are not. Indeed by favouring studious children from middle class families over others, the measures used to mitigate the disruption have added to the normal tilt of the playing field in their favour.
The government’s reaction to this is broadly to make the exams easier. One can see why that is attractive to those who are going to have to take them, but it is questionable whether it is really the best answer to the two issues pointed out above. Take the disadvantage which this year’s cohort of students suffers in comparison with those of other years. Certainly easing the exams will prevent the average grade being unfairly low, but it does so by means of a pretence. If it is actually the case that standards are going to be lower this year then it is a little odd to deal with it by pretending the opposite. Why is it not sufficient for universities and employers to take into account that normal grades were harder to achieve, perhaps by adding a symbol to the grades to remind them of the point?
One of the difficulties here is that we have begun to regard grades as mere tickets to further education rather than as certifying that a particular standard has been reached. If grades are softened so that students can achieve their expectations, we will inevitably end up with a lot of people who are rather less well-educated than they appear to be on paper. In many cases it doesn’t matter at all. Exam grading is an inexact science and achievements depend to some extent on luck. To the extent that it does matter, however, misleading grading could do damage. Suppose that a politician was less good at maths than the grades made him or her appear. Unless we were talking about the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who would care? Take someone who is responsible for the safety of nuclear power plants but cannot express themselves well and you get rather a different conclusion.
Then let us look at the other unfairness, the fact that those who for one reason or another cannot constructively participate in online learning will be at a greater disadvantage than usual. Making the exam easier does not really help here because the relaxation applies to those who are going to do well as much as it does to those who are going to do badly. Presumably there will be more starred firsts than usual and those lower down the grades will be left behind a little further than would normally be the case.
Alas, none of it is very satisfactory. But what we might do is to think how it could be better if we ever found ourselves in this sort of position again. There are two things which might help. The first is to change the grading system so that it works on a proportional basis. Instead of giving grades against absolute criteria, one could simply give As to the top 20% of students, Bs to the next 20%, et cetera. That would remove any unfair comparison between different years and also the annual wrangling over whether there was grade inflation. A student’s grade would merely show where he came in relation to his cohort, and universities and employers could base their offers accordingly.
The second change is more fundamental. If the purpose of education is to teach rather than to grade students, then the sooner that online teaching of good quality is available to all the better. That means that every home needs to have good internet availability and every student needs to have his or her computer. It is for this reason that the government must be kept to its manifesto promise to extend superfast broadband to every home in the country as soon as it is possible to do so and not be allowed to dilute the target to 85%. If we are to upskill for a post-Brexit world, proper on-line connectivity is probably the most important measure promised by the Government at the last election.