Government Under Pressure To Avoid Exam Results 'Disaster' That Hurts Poorest

Labour writes to education secretary Gavin Williamson after Scotland's downgrading of pupils from most deprived backgrounds.

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The government is under pressure to ensure exam results in England “will not exacerbate existing inequalities” after students from poorer backgrounds in Scotland were hit hardest by downgrading.

Eduction bosses across the UK are grappling with the first school year without exams, and the Scottish government on Tuesday came under fire after the first attempt at moderation across the four nations appeared to favour more affluent pupils.

Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon was forced to defend the Scottish Qualifications Authority over its model that reduced the pass rate of the poorest Higher pupils by more than twice that of the richest.

Education commentators said basing results on a school’s previous performance, rather than an individual’s track record, had led to “systemic biasing in favour of the least deprived”.

Now Labour has written to education secretary Gavin Williamson calling for “urgent reassurance” that the same will not be repeated south of the border next week.

In a letter to Williamson, shadow education secretary Kate Green warned this year’s system of assessment following the Covid-19 pandemic “risks creating winners and losers and some children in schools that have been improving are those who could lose out the most”.

Green, MP for Stretford and Urmston, cautioned “the system risks baking in inequality” as she branded the handling of Highers results in Scotland “disastrous”.

Setting out a series of concerns, Green said: “All students deserve to receive grades on their own merit and not a computer algorithm. It is therefore vital that students, teachers and parents understand the way in which results will primarily be determined, and how a balance is to be achieved between performance at centre level and consideration of students’ individual performance.

“If the eventual results are determined primarily at centre level, there is a significant danger that inequality will be baked into the system, as students will be judged on their schools’ prior attainment and not on individual merit.”

Green argued there remained “serious concerns” about the appeals process as she asked what support would be given for a “fair and accessible” process of appeals.

The letter argued: “Nicola Sturgeon has failed a generation of young Scots by ensuring that the inequality and attainment gap has been further entrenched through her failure to act on the injustice of the moderation system. We cannot allow that to happen here in England next week.”

Green asked whether providers of post-16 and post-18 education should “be flexible” when making offers.

In a statement, Green said: “Yesterday’s disastrous handling of Highers results in Scotland shows what can go wrong when computer algorithms drive students’ grades, and politicians wash their hands of responsibility.

“With A-level results just over a week away, and GCSE results due the week after, it’s imperative the government acts now to reassure worried students, teachers and parents.

“Young people deserve to have their hard work assessed on merit, but the system risks baking in inequality and doing most harm to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, those from ethnic minority groups and those with special educational needs and disabilities.

“Ministers must urgently set out how they’ll ensure the results next week will not exacerbate existing inequalities, and what extra support they’ll give to students who feel they’ve been unfairly graded to navigate the appeals process.”

In Scotland, the pass rate of pupils in the most deprived data zones was reduced by 15.2% from teacher estimates after the exam board’s intervention.

In contrast, the pass rate for pupils from the most affluent backgrounds dropped by 6.9%.

But Sturgeon said that without the moderation there would have been a 19.8% increase of the pass rate among the poorest fifth of pupils, which would have been “unprecedented and therefore not credible”.

Sturgeon said: “What we want to make sure is that this year’s results have the degree of credibility that means that they are not so out of sync with previous years that people are going to look at them and say ‘they don’t make any sense’.”

An SQA spokesman said: “The most disadvantaged young people have achieved better results in 2020 compared to both 2019 and the average results for the last four years.

“At Grades A to C, the attainment gap between the most and least disadvantaged young people is also narrower this year for National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher than for last year or the average gap for the last four years.”


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