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A-level playing field

21 August 2020

THE A-level fiasco of these past few days is puzzling on all levels. It is easy to imagine a degree of hard-heartedness among those running the exam regulator Ofqual. After all, they have been managing a system that contains all sorts of arbitrary adjustments for years, with the message: “Some of you are going to fail — live with it . . . except those with the money and the school and parental support to contest poor marking by an overworked, underqualified student or assistant teacher in need of a summer income.” The greatest surprise is that the politicians overseeing Ofqual failed to do the one thing that the politicians are most obsessed with: recognise the electoral consequences of getting this wrong. The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, is a former Chief Whip, and among those most likely to appreciate the potential for harm. It was left to Conservative backbenchers to point out the implications of blighting the lives of a cohort of new voters in full view of their parents and grandparents. Mr Williamson knows better than to expect a display of collective Cabinet responsibility at such a time. He also knows, however, that a government with a majority of 80 seats and more than four years to the next election can take a robust line with criticism.

The question of competence remains, however. In times past, a knowledgeable political class, working alongside an experienced Civil Service, would have managed the examless A-level assessments directly. Two things have changed. One is the contracting out of the most difficult bits of running the country, either to quangos or, under recent governments, to commercial firms. The gain, supposedly, is the application of business acumen and financial discipline to government business. The loss is the vital combination of expertise and accountability which once attracted bright people to the Civil Service and inspired them to work for the public good.

The other element is the shrinking of the political gene pool. If senior posts are awarded on the basis of enthusiasm for Brexit and catching the eye of the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, factors such as intelligence, wisdom, and the ability to run a government department appear to be subsidiary. This is not a situation unique to the present administration. Whenever an ideology comes to the fore in a political party, be it Brexit or fealty to Jeremy Corbyn, basic competence is overlooked when it comes to preferment. It is a depressing thought that democracy in the UK remains unable to untangle merit and political ambition in favour of the former.

This leaves the question of 2020’s school-leavers. Perhaps, perversely, they will be attracted to a career in politics, on the basis that, however inflated their grades are now, they couldn’t do worse at running the country than the present incumbents.

Read more on this story in Paul Vallely’s column

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