The UK’s High School Examinations Fiasco

Photograph Source: Conor Lawless – CC BY 2.0

The highest qualification for high-school students in England, Wales, and the north of Ireland, is the A-level. Scotland has a different system called the Highers.

UK students seeking admission to tertiary education within the UK’s four sub-nations have to take A-levels or Highers– though the International Baccalaureate and qualifications in other countries equivalent to the A-level, such as the Abitur in Germany or Bac in France, are also recognized. The US SAT is not recognized.

The A-level exam is unlike the US’s SAT.

The SAT is multiple-choice, whereas the typical A-level exam involves writing 2-4 long (or longish) essays in a 3-hour period in response to questions chosen from an exam-paper with a typical range of 8-12 questions. For this reason successful students taking the more demanding A-levels receive a year’s advance credit if they choose to matriculate at a US university.

Another key difference is that UK students don’t apply directly to individual universities.

Since the UK only has 1 private university, the 105 government-funded universities have a centralized admissions system (UCAS).

Via UCAS, students about to take their A-levels apply to 5 universities at which they wish to study (ranked by applicants in order of interest). Applicants are advised to list the subject they wish to study (this includes joint-degrees), since applicants only get one personal statement for all universities they apply to, the statement having to be tailored to their subject, as opposed to university, of choice.

A key part of the application will be the predicted grades for the applicant provided by their teachers.

UCAS forwards applications to the universities concerned, who then assess the application and decide whether to make an offer for study, which includes the grades applicants must achieve in order to matriculate.

The examinations are set and graded by a number of exam boards.

England, Wales and Northern Ireland have several exam boards; schools can choose between them on a subject-by-subject basis, without restrictions.

Currently, there are 5 exam boards available to state schools: AQA (Assessment and Qualifications Alliance); CCEA (Council for the Curriculum, Examinations & Assessment); OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations); Pearson; and WJEC (Welsh Joint Education Committee).

The Covid lockdown threw a spanner in the works of this system, by preventing students from taking proctored A-level exams at their respective schools. Students had grades to aim for, but sans exams, had no way to attain their hoped-for objectives.

This is where the government blundered.

The 2020 A-level exam period would have run from Monday 11 May until Wednesday 26 June. It became apparent in March that it would be impossible to hold this year’s exams because of the pandemic lockdown, and the government cancelled them.

The Tory education minister, Gavin Williamson (a dimwit whose main claim to fame is being the 2006 fireplace salesperson of the year), therefore had a couple of months to implement an alternative mode of grade-calculation for 2020’s exam takers.

The government decided that grades for these thwarted exam-takers would be based on a combination of their predicted grades, rankings provided by teachers, and an algorithm based on schools’ previous results.

The flaw in the use of this algorithm was clear even without the benefit of hindsight. As is the case nearly everywhere, exam results tend to mirror a location’s prevailing poverty levels.

Students in poorer areas come from schools with lower levels of attainment, the converse being the case for schools in prosperous areas.

The algorithm downgraded 40% of predicted A-level results, with students in less-advantaged areas the hardest hit, while private schools enjoyed the biggest leap in the percentage of top grades.

As a result, thousands of poorer pupils missed out on places at university—in effect the algorithm assigned them grades based on their postcode.

Facing a huge public outcry (including Tory MPs), Williamson dumped the algorithm by making a drastic U-turn in government policy, saying A-level students would now be given the grades their teachers had predicted.

The result has been an absolute crisis for universities.

Those allowed to matriculate on the basis of the algorithm could not now be denied their university places, while those with subsequently acceptable grades based on their teachers’ predications are having to be admitted as well.

An example of this chaos was given me by a family member in the UK university system. A medical degree in the UK is a 5-year undergraduate degree, and clinical practice is of course a vital part of it. But with matriculants now considerably in excess of what medical schools can accommodate, it will be impossible to conduct clinical practice within the existing framework.

What next for medical schools?

Perhaps doctors who are not as well-trained because of shortfalls in their clinical practice, or a huge compensatory infusion of government funds for medical schools in a time of pandemic-induced economic recession, with a post-Brexit crisis still to come on top of this in early 2021?

Hopefully for Brits it will be the latter.

And what about Williamson himself, as well as his boss BoJo Johnson?

Williamson remains in post as education minister despite another U-turn after screwing-up the A-levels exams.

He had decreed that state schools should reopen (in September) without masks being required in classrooms.

Furious protests from parents and teachers compelled a reversal– masks will now be worn in classrooms when schools reopen.

Williamson and BoJo are trying to preserve their careers by throwing educational bureaucrats under the bus.

The head of England’s exam regulator (Ofqual), Sally Collier, has resigned, and the head civil servant in the department of education (DfE), Jonathan Slater, will step down on September 1 after the “prime minister concluded that there is a need for fresh official leadership” in the department, the DfE announced.

Slater is the fifth senior civil servant given the boot in less than a year, following the permanent secretaries of the Foreign Office, Home Office and Ministry of Justice, as well as the cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill.

Gone are the days when ministers took responsibility for poor decisions made on their watch by resigning (this only seems to happen in Japan)— these days a hapless bureaucrat or two has to face the chopping block in their place, while the ministers involved still drive around in their black limousines, and lie repeatedly in media interviews and even in parliament about the debacles they preside over.

The UK’s parliament is touted in some circles as the mother of all parliaments— nowadays, more appropriately, it is perhaps the motherfucker of all parliaments.

BoJo Johnson became the source of derision even in the normally sedate parts of mainstream media when he blamed the A-levels fiasco on the nonsensical notion of a “mutant algorithm”.

Given that an algorithm can only be applied more or less well by those in charge, there were many jokes about who the real “mutants” were.

The technique used by the Tories in this episode is known in social media as “firehosing”.

Firehosing involves churning out as many lies as feasible as often as possible, not so much with the aim of having people swallow the lies peddled, but rather with the aim of sidelining arguments purporting to rely on ascertaining facts, and putting in their place phantasmagorias of “reality” reduced to the positioning of “narratives” and “optics”. Those who can sell these positions best are then said to win the “argument” in question.

Individuals such as BoJo (and Trump) don’t really care if people believe them. Their aim is to supplant what used to be considered “reality” by relatively well-informed social groupings possessing a modicum or approximation of scruples, with a riotous epistemological anarchy (à la Fox News), so that those so disposed are in a position to affirm that right is wrong, the true is false, left is right, and so on.

This is the underpinning of what is now considered “post-truth” politics.

BoJo and his allies, however, are not the UK’s first post-truth politicians.

That title belongs to the fundamentally unserious and lightweight “Dodgy” Dave Cameron, BoJo’s fellow Etonian and Oxonian predecessor as prime minister, who was an advertising executive on a minor commercial TV channel before he took up politics (saying he wanted to do this because he’d “be good at it”).

For now this is another story, along with the firehosing surely to follow the disastrous no-deal Brexit almost certain to kick-in on 1st January 2021.

In the lead-up to this possible future story, the current Optimum opinion poll may become relevant.

The poll shows Labour is now in a tie with the Tories for the first time since last summer, before BoJo became the Tory leader. In just 5 months since the lockdown was imposed by Johnson, the Tories have relinquished a 26-point lead over Labour, who now stand neck-and-neck with the Tories on 40%.

The sad truth for Labour is that it has done nothing to merit this gain. Its Blairite leader, the erstwhile leading lawyer Keir Starmer, has wiped the floor with BoJo in parliamentary debate, but apart from trying to sideline the party’s Corbynites, he’s not made a single policy move or statement of significance since becoming leader.

The opportunism and unbearable lightness that was Tony Blair’s mantle may now descend on Starmer, by his own choice.

Relying on the Tory opposition to shoot themselves in the proverbial foot, which they’ve done repeatedly so far, can bring impressive but variable gains for now, but this Tory foot-shooting won’t fill Labour’s policy vacuum in the longer term.

As for the pandemic, in the last weekend of August, the UK recorded 1,715 Covid cases in largest weekend figure since mid-May.

Kenneth Surin is emeritus at Duke University, North Carolina. He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.


Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.