The Government’s embarrassing U-turn on exams is yet another humiliation for Boris Johnson


“The Tories need to look very hard at our future generation & take heed, because the clear message is that that these young people will not forget this Tory blunder for a long time.”

Kate Osborne MP

This Government’s embarrassing U-turn on exams is yet another humiliation for Boris Johnson and his incompetent Cabinet Ministers. The Tories had more than enough time to sort out how they were going to make the A-Level and GCSE exams results process work, but unsurprisingly they have presided over utter chaos.

It is staggering that 40 per cent of A-Level results were marked down due to a biased algorithm. It was a biased algorithm rooted in class discrimination, an algorithm that showed the Tory mask slipping once again. I saw the impact of this failed policy first hand in my own constituency of Jarrow on A level results day when I was inundated with e-mails from distressed students and their parents, who quite rightly expressed their outrage, their anger and their upset at seeing their results marked down through no fault of their own. 

With each e-mail, letter and Facebook or Twitter message I received was a heart-breaking story about a university place lost and a dream shattered. These stories, like so many others across the country, left a devastating impact on many students, and it makes me angry at the impact the Government’s original plans would have had if they had stayed the same.

I was delighted to speak at the National Education Union organised rally at Newcastle’s Grey’s Monument, in solidarity with those students who worked so hard to achieve their A levels, only to be penalised in this way and invalidating years of hard work. Schools, colleges, teachers, students and their families have all faced an incredibly challenging time in recent months, but I must say they have conducted themselves with great professionalism and dignity. 

This exam scandal has had a devastating impact on working-class students, students of colour and disabled students. And I believe that regional inequalities were reproduced in the original algorithm because students in the North East were given worse grades than those living in London and the South East. Many have lost university places, some still don’t have grades, many of whom have seen their opportunities shattered as a result.

This exam fiasco has caused chaos to an already stretched workforce in the higher education sector, where morale is already at an all-time low. The Education Secretary has since lifted the cap on university places to help accommodate students affected by the exam grading decision, whilst saying nothing about how they will support universities to accommodate the extra students.

There is also no support or plan for how this will impact on post-92 universities (previously polytechnic universities). The lifting of the cap on university places is likely to swell universities that are considered to be more ‘prestigious’, meaning that post-92 universities will likely suffer a shortfall in numbers.  We know that post-92 universities are more likely to be attended by local working-class and mature students. This is because they are set up and structured to support students from non-traditional backgrounds, and in fact students from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds tend to achieve higher at post-92 than they would at a Russell Group university. This means it is essential that the government takes steps to ensure that post-92 universities survive and make a guarantee that no jobs will be lost.

It is also telling of this government’s worldview when students on vocational BTEC and NVQ courses are still victims to this classist algorithm. It seems that students on these vocational courses have been left as an afterthought. If this government is serious about levelling up, then it is essential that they urgently make an announcement on BTEC and NVQ grades.

Thankfully, the government made a U-turn on A level and GCSE grades. It would never have happened without the protests from so many young people, the important work of the trades unions and everyone who spoke out and powerfully made their voices heard. This is a brilliant example of the power of protest and what we can do when we come together. Although I am relieved that the government have finally listened to the overwhelming level of public feeling on this issue, the exam fiasco should never have happened, and I believe that Boris Johnson should have moved quickly to remove Gavin Williamson as Education Secretary.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown to be a virus that breeds on inequality; it appears to have now shone further light on educational inequalities. But do not let this scandal be used to distract from the fact that educational inequalities have always existed. Whether that be parents buying houses in catchment areas to get their kids into better state schools or the fact that 30% of students attending Russell Group universities were educated at private school, despite only 6% of children in the UK being educated in private schools. We currently have a system where a child’s education conforms to the wealth and wishes of parents rather than the ability and efforts of the pupil. All the government’s algorithm did was mirror this.

The fact that a disproportionate number of people in the top jobs across the UK – including the prime minister and most of his cabinet – were privately educated. This shows that educational inequalities are entrenched in this country, and they want to keep it that way as we know that this whole fiasco was no accident. If we want to bring about fairness for future generations then we need to get serious about unifying and integrating our education system. We can only do this by creating a truly universal education system. We need to move away from looking at education as an industry and create an education system that is based on human right.

For now, I am pleased that we all stood together and succeeded to win this battle – for the change our young people deserve. The Tories need to look very hard at our future generation and take heed, because the clear message is that that these young people will not forget this Tory blunder for a long time, if ever. I will continue to keep speaking up for what’s right and fair in parliament and beyond.

  • This is the first of Kate Osborne MP’s regular new column for Labour Outlook. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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