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Paul Vallely: Low marks for A-level grading system

21 August 2020

Its priority was wrong, and advice should have been taken, Paul Vallely judges


A-level students protest in Westminster, last week

A-level students protest in Westminster, last week

WHO is to blame for the A-level results fiasco? A faulty algorithm? An arrogant exam regulator, Ofqual, which refused to take the advice of the two senior Fellows offered months ago by the Royal Statistical Society? The hapless Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, who sat, transfixed like a rabbit in the headlights, for more than a week as the same problems unfolded in Scotland — a man so transparently out of his depth that even Tory newspapers compare him to the gormless Frank Spencer or the naïve Private Pike? A Government that staggers from one quick fix to another and refuses to take responsibility for any­thing? All of them, in some way. But something is wrong at a much deeper level.

Catholic Social Teaching is undergirded by two key principles: human dignity and the common good. The first enshrines the value of the individ­ual, seeing all people — in all their variety and vagaries — as made in the image of God. Looking at people should tell us something about the nature of God. The second principle, the common good, is different from the good of the majority. It insists that the good of the community involves respect­ing the rights of individuals. More than that, it must value and cherish everyone.

The golden calf before which the Government bowed at the start of this process was the need to avoid grade inflation. This was the wrong priority in the year of a pandemic that has so disrupted schooling. If you insist on making every set of results a zero-sum game, to keep them in line with previous years, you will get winners and losers. Individuals — who have not been given the chance to take an exam — will be unfairly sacri­ficed for the preservation of the system.

The mechanism used to achieve this made matters even worse. Mr Williamson said that the system that he put in place to correct over-enthusiastic teacher predictions was 97 per cent accurate to within one grade. But universities’ decisions often turn on a single grade. What sounds a small margin at the macro-level can change the course of an individual life, hence the widespread distress with which the 300,000 downgraded marks were greeted.

The antennae of any intelligent politician would have sensed that this was a formula for chaos — even if he could not exactly foresee the Kafkaesque nightmare to which he would be sub­jecting the 50,000 students who missed out on their first-choice universities.

Ofqual eventually conceded that its grade ac­­curacy was only 60 per cent. Only a majoritarian could be happy with that; for it means that, out of every ten grades allocated, four will be wrong. To make matters worse, this flawed algorithm amplified existing inequalities. It reduced the grades of students from some of the most disadvantaged schools, and inflated those in small schools and subject groups (usually private schools) who were excluded from the algorithm on grounds of size, and instead were graded on teacher predictions.

Putting the good of the majority above the common good is a recipe for injustice. A system that disregards individuals’ dignity so extensively can promote that injustice on a massive scale.

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