A-level results: a class fiasco
U-turn if you want to. The government certainly has.
How far the Tories have fallen. Although one couldn’t call their tenure in the 1980s a wide-margin success considering the scars that still remain on British society to this day, they can at least be absolved from the criticism that their government was weak-minded or lacking in conviction. In many ways the current conservative administration feels like a self-parody of the party’s past. Do you remember when Margaret Thatcher, whose vision for the country and foreign affairs was so steadfast and resolute that it garnered her the moniker Iron Lady, made mockery of those “waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn”? Well, nowadays it feels like all you can read about is the various U-turns and reversals from a plethora of failures or fiascos. From exams to evictions by way of parliamentary voting, the sheer amount of back-peddling in recent months is shocking, even given the circumstances. Even as I’m writing this, there’s been yet another U-turn in the education sector. Far from the Iron Lady, Boris Johnson has emerged as a gelatin gentleman when his country needs strong leadership the most.
This consistent sense of incompetence is unsurprising given the caliber of Boris’ cabinet. Rather than electing a cabinet built upon expertise, the ministerial ensemble rather resembles a politburo, filled to the brim with careerists and yes-men who have enabled the UK’s poor response to the pandemic. Figures like Dominic Raab and Michael Gove have extensive track records of embarrassing failures and controversies, but now find themselves sitting at the heart of the Westminster machine. Disgraced and untrustworthy politicians have also made the cut, with Priti Patel and Gavin Williamson being promoted by Downing Street in exchange for their fanatic loyalism to Johnson, in spite of their illicit, and perhaps illegal, dealings which cost them their jobs under the May administration.
Yet even in this cabinet, Gavin Williamson in particular stands out as being the epitome of ministerial uselessness. Most remembered for being the man who told Russia to “shut up and go away”, Williamson’s role-play as statesman has only ended up in disaster. Under his leadership, the Ministry of Education has essentially gone into reverse gear, backtracking on almost anything and everything possible. From the pledge that ‘all primary school children will be back in school for a month before the end of term’ back in June, to Williamson’s cuts to the free school meals scheme in spite of the Tory’s manifesto pledge, the last few months have been a compilation of the besieged minister’s greatest hits played backwards. But the most egregious example of the Williamson’s lack of ability came from the A-level exams fiasco.
Despite warnings that the algorithm Ofqual were using could disadvantage pupils from poorer backgrounds, Williamson went ahead anyway, leaving 39.1% of pupils downgraded and plunging the higher education system into disarray. Williamson’s response, you may ask? “This is it. No U-turn, no change.” Four days later Williamson did yet another 180°, as the government announced A-level and GCSE grades would be based on teacher’s assessments after all. But by this time the damage had been done. Some universities and secondary schools found themselves oversubscribed, and are now facing huge economic hits as a result. Some students even found their original offers jeopardised and have been forced to reconfigure their immediate future. Many more have voiced their anger at a Downing Street refusing to sack Williamson.
The ministerial ensemble rather resembles a politburo, filled to the brim with careerists and yes-men who have enabled the UK’s poor response to the pandemic.
Yet, despite Williamson’s unflattering track record, it’s hard not view the recent exam debacle with as part of something greater. Over the last ten or so years of Conservative rule, we’ve seen a remarkable decline in social mobility in the UK. Last year the government commission into this issue made the shocking discovery that there’s been virtually no changes in social mobility since 2014. Conservative governments’ consecutive programmes of austerity have stifled aspiration in this country, with “almost all forms of adult education [being] in decline since 2010”. The economic starvation of the education system goes hand-in-hand with the strangely backwards reforms that the government pushed for as early as the coalition years, with Michael Gove’s attempts to bring back the harsh O-level system, create an air-brushed curriculum and a drive to create self-selecting academies demonstrating a longstanding desire for increased social segregation and stratification.
In this context, the recent exam fiasco feels less like a series of incompetent decisions, and more like a calculated way to further entrench class divisions. The Guardian made note that the algorithm was designed to favour smaller class sizes, which in turn benefited independent schools, leading to record percentage increases in As and A*s whilst comprehensives were below the average. This benchmarking based on results from previous years punished aspirational or gifted students from poorer backgrounds, becoming a levelling down for those left behind instead of the promised levelling up. It’s unsurprising that the algorithm was designed to favour the privileged considering nearly 70% of the current cabinet is privately educated, despite only 6.5% of people being privately educated in the UK. And it’s notable that no other country in Europe faced an exam meltdown like we did, especially as the UN singled us out for having especially harsh austerity policies that have left one fifth of the UK in poverty.
If the last six months of government policy have been marred by incompetence, then the last decade has been defined by callousness. Considering how difficult it is to pinpoint whether the exam’s fiasco is an example of the former or the latter, the next four years of politics look particularly bleak. Perhaps the government will embark on one final U-turn to steer the country into less tumultuous waters and return the Tories to their (albeit limited) former glory. But given their handling of the pandemic, they’d probably bungle that as well.