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Wednesday, September 23, 2020
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Exams debacle: Johnson must take the blame

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HAVING been bottom of the league when the last Scottish football season was abandoned two months early, Heart of Midlothian controversially were relegated from the Scottish Premiership. Hearts tried and failed to overturn the enforced demotion by several different means, even raising an unsuccessful civil action in Scotland’s Court of Session.

Instead of arguing for sporting integrity, the Edinburgh club’s various appeals should perhaps have emphasised that beforehand ‘experts’ had unanimously and confidently tipped the team to finish in the top half. Denied the opportunity to complete the full fixture list, underperforming Hearts should therefore have been awarded a final league placing commensurate with pundits’ wayward pre-season predictions, based upon the players’ perceived potential.

In a more serious context, a similar line of argument has worked for Scotland’s most senior school pupils: with external examinations cancelled for the first time in history, students will now be graded solely in line with teachers’ forecasts – despite Education Secretary John Swinney having previously decried schools’ soothsaying for often being ‘optimistic and aspirational’ compared with an actual examination which ‘does something different’. 

In other words, pupils’ ‘examination’ results for 2020 are to be based only on teachers marking their own handiwork. Recognising this vested interest, Holyrood originally instructed the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) to modify schools’ suppositions to ‘deliver a set of results comparable in terms of quality to last year’s’. To this end, the SQA initially ‘moderated 26.2 per cent of them, while leaving the rest unchanged. Of those grades that were moderated, 93.1 per cent were downgraded.’ 

Put another way, three-quarters of the awards were to be the predicted grade or better. Nonetheless, stung by unusually hostile media coverage, particularly the accusation that pupils from poorly performing schools were being further disadvantaged, the useless SNP administration promptly pivoted: ‘This moderation is necessary to ensure we have a credible system of results,’ Nicola Sturgeon had briefly bulwarked, before her deputy John Swinney ditched the downgrades, apologised to pupils for the ‘feeling of unfairness’ – note ‘feeling of unfairness’ – and instructed the SQA to issue grades ‘based solely on teacher or lecturer judgment’.

As a result of the doltish duo’s volte-face: ‘This year’s Higher pass rate will now sit at 89.2 per cent, up 14.4 percentage points on 2019, while the Advanced Higher pass rate is at 93.1 per cent, up 13.7 points from the previous year.’ Who can possibly take seriously such remarkably improved results – especially from Scotland’s education system which, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment, suffers from declining standards in the core subjects of mathematics, science and literacy? 

Meanwhile in England, at the time of writing Gavin Williamson clings on as Secretary of State for Education – even though Ofqual, by suddenly withdrawing guidance to pupils on how to appeal and reportedly seeking to abandon its own algorithm, appears to be doing all it can to subvert him and make his position untenable. So far he has resisted siren calls to copy the climb-down of Sturgeon and Swinney and still balks at automatically awarding pupils their teachers’ assessments. Whatever else one thinks of Williamson, undoubtedly he was correct caustically to observe: ‘In Scotland you’ve got a system where there aren’t any controls, you’ve got rampant grade inflation. There’s been no checks and balances in that system; it degrades every single grade as a result and in-bakes unfairness.’

If Gavin Williamson were to be entirely honest, he might go further and concede that marking phantom examinations is nonsensical. Those now heaping most ordure on Williamson and the Government are no doubt the same fearful fools who in March clamoured for the closure of schools and hollered for the halting of exams. It is worth remembering that when Boris Johnson acquiesced, he absurdly vowed: ‘Exams will not take place as planned in May and June. Though we will make sure that pupils get the qualifications they need and deserve for their academic career.’

Leaving aside the fact that the marks which pupils ‘need’ and ‘deserve’ are often entirely different, that was a preposterous promise which Johnson cannot keep without devaluing the qualifications. It is also inexplicable that no serious consideration was given to continuing with the scheduled exams in environments where candidates are required to be distanced.

In an interview last week, Gavin Williamson expressed regret: ‘I apologise to every single child right across the country for the disruption that they’ve had to suffer.’Yet that upset has been because on March 18 the prime minister ordered the country’s education system to shut down despite reiterating during his speech that ‘counterintuitively schools are actually very safe environments’. 

If anyone should be saying sorry to pupils and parents it is Boris Johnson, not only for cravenly closing schools with undue haste rather than as a last resort, but for summarily scrapping examinations in favour of awarding illusory grades.

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Gary Oliver
Gary Oliver
Gary Oliver is an accountant who lives in East Lothian.

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