It has been a difficult week for the UK Government and especially for Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. Schools have been closed since March and no exams have been taken. Yet GCSE and A-level students need to know what their grades are in order to decide on their future studies or careers.
Some way had to be found to make a guess as to what grade a student would have received for an exam they did not sit. With hindsight, it should have been clear to every single one of us that there is no completely fair way to do this. Basing the marks on teacher assessments was considered, then rejected. It would be impossible for all teachers to assess on exactly the same basis across the UK. As individuals, some teachers are bound to be more generous than others. Some will have had decades of experience whereas others are new to the job. When this was being looked at, ministers and officials realised it would have led to a huge increase in those receiving top grades and some universities would not be able to keep their promise to give places to all those receiving offers.
Rather than base results on teacher assessments, the Education Secretary decided to use a formula based on a range of factors. Although this still led to an increase in the numbers receiving top marks, there is no doubt some were awarded a lower mark than they would have received if they had actually taken the exam. Cue general outrage from parents of said children - and here I declare an interest as the parent of one such child.
So, a U-turn was conducted and now teacher assessments will be used. However, let’s not assume this is over. Universities will struggle to accommodate people, and those not receiving top grades will still want to appeal and may believe they have been unfairly targeted by vindictive teachers. The row will run on.
In the wake of this, there have been protests and demands to sack the Education Secretary. I have not joined. Of course not, you say, because you are on the same side. Except I am not. In all of the political fighting that has taken place, it has been almost completely forgotten that the Welsh Labour Government and Welsh Liberal Democrat Education Minister Kirsty Williams looked at the same evidence, took exactly the same decisions, then made exactly the same U-turn at exactly the same time when, with the benefit of hindsight, they saw the outcomes were unacceptable.
If there is fault which demands sackings, then it lies with every single major political party in the UK. But as a parent, I would prefer a little magnanimity and for all four education ministers in England, Wales Scotland and Northern Ireland to concentrate on reopening schools. In my view, as a parent, online learning is a very poor substitute for proper teaching. If the schools do not reopen, then next year we won’t just be trying to guess what grade a pupil might have got in an exam they didn’t sit - but for most of a course they will have missed.
All those calling for ministers to resign - or rather calling for one to resign and ignoring the other three - should concentrate their energy on calling for the unions, teachers and governments to work together across the UK to get our schools open in September. In the meantime, congratulations to all those who have received their GCSE and A-level results, and good luck for the future.
*Published in the Monmouthshire Beacon on 26 August 2020 and the Abergavenny Chronicle on 27 August 2020*