The Department for Education’s whirlwind relationship with grade inflation has left nothing but destruction in its path. Top grades may be at a record high, but this only masks the fact that already disadvantaged pupils have become even more disadvantaged.
A new analysis by Ofqual published this morning has revealed a widening attainment gap for top grades at A level for pupils on Free School Meals (FSM), disadvantaged pupils and black pupils since the pandemic. This bleak trend is also true for students on FSM achieving Grade C and above at A level.
As tempting and politically convenient as it may be to pin this phenomenon as an inevitable consequence of Covid, the reality is far from this. It’ll take more than scrapping a frenzied algorithm and passing on the onus to teachers to restore the honour of academic assessment across England.
A year ago, a time I prefer to not recall, I had my own A-level results day. We were hopeful, but far from naïve. A top grammar school on the border between London and Kent, my peers ranged across boroughs, counties and class divides. Most of us, in the habit of rigorous assessment and competition, were pretty candid about our academic abilities. Nothing could have prepared us for the double whammy we were about to receive.
On the fateful day, tears and panic attacks could be found as you turned every corridor. The winners of the postcode lottery, alongside those who’d been able to build a better bond with their tutors (seemingly correlated with smaller class sizes – i.e. those who did subjects like art and film studies over maths and science). The chaos that ensued saw talented students not just miss their offers at top universities – including some who had already taken degree-specific assessments, such as for medicine, dentistry, law and any subject at Oxbridge – but struggle to get into any university at all.
Though nobody would dare admit it, classmates no longer looked at each other the same way. The illusion we’d been fed that our effort and academic achievement alone would determine our futures had gone. A space that had previously been branded a haven of merit and equal opportunity became the latest front for class warfare.
But the problem isn’t that grading isn’t fair now – it’s that it has never been fair in the first place. Whether you are for or against traditional testing, private schools or grammar schools – they are not to blame. Even before the pandemic, grades were an inherited gamble on your future dependent on living in a good or bad area, going to a comprehensive school or a grammar school, whether your teacher likes you or not, and how much money your parents are willing and able to fork out on tuition. To give power to academic ability, students across England must be given a fighting chance.
How should the government go about this? By not leaving matters to money. An estimated 9 per cent of families in the UK do not have a laptop, desktop or tablet at home. Then there’s the problem of internet infrastructure, particularly in across parts of the North of England, which is in dire need of improvement. The government ought to also look at further incorporating EdTech as a tool to give students control over their learning, as well as helping to standardise the quality of education available to state school students, particularly in schools with historically low attainment.
After all, the National Tutoring Programme, a government-funded, sector-led initiative to help students catch-up after school closures, proves that the government recognises the need for extra high-quality tuition. Working with experts in education technology and the science behind learning post-Covid would be a good start.
The grade inflation debate should not limit the failure of education policy to what has happened and will continue to happen during the Covid years. We must take a revolutionary look at schooling as a whole and bring it into the 21st Century for students to really compete on merit.