The inelegant fix of awarding CAGs puts year 12s at the sharp end of this crisis

18 Aug 2020, 9:16

There are only limited signs of covid encouraging headteachers to leave their jobs.

After days of uncertainty, we’ve learnt the government’s pathway out of their exam fiasco. In debates about appeals, admissions and teacher assessments, one thing is clear – lessons must be learnt and Gavin Williamson must go, says Jane Cahill

The government has accepted that centre assessment grades are the only solution out of the exam results crisis.

However, allowing Year 13 students to bank stellar results is, at best, an inelegant fix.

Whilst they’ve had a difficult year and deserve kindness, we must remember they aren’t the only cohort to suffer – Year 12s have too.

Allowing Year 13s to defer university places, or reapply with better grades, could reduce the number of places for Year 12s in 2021, who will likely sit exams.

The answer lay in clemency. It was clear that the algorithm, if used in a light touch approach, was a robust way to control grade inflation, as long as you protected disadvantaged offer holders.

The frustration of parents and teachers cannot dissipate at the dangling of higher grades

University vice-chancellors should have heeded these warnings. Instead, they relied heavily on this year’s grades.

The heart-breaking tales on the news hinged on futures dashed – with a lenient approach to offer holders, this damage could have been avoided. Now the system must handle an equally thorny problem, a huge increase in the number of students with high grades.

Many students have already been placed through the university clearing process, generating a range of problems with the government U-turn. Most institutions have reached capacity, 42,000 students landed places on their insurance courses and 92,000 are ‘on hold’ waiting for an appeals process that no longer exists.

Lower-tariff institutions are already on the brink financially, if this grade inflation sees demand for the most competitive providers shoot up, following a release of the cap on the number of students they can accept, they could face bankruptcy. The government must increase funding to stop this from happening.

But the most pressing fear is that Year 13 take deferred places with these centre-assessed grades. This leaves Year 12s anxiously watching on as they draft their personal statements, competing for fewer places in 2021.

They have been studying with patchy learning support for months; the policy solution here must take their interests into account.

The final step has to be political accountability. Reinstating centre-assessed grades is a simple solution and an easy rallying cry for the students protesting outside the Department for Education. It might even feel like justice.

The profession, however, need to voice concerns on behalf of the Year 12s that may end up at the sharp end of this crisis. We know how hard they have worked in lockdown, and the challenges they face from September. There’s no reason they should pay the price for appeasing rightful angry Year 13s.

The frustration of parents and teachers cannot dissipate at the dangling of higher grades. Questions must also be asked about why this took so long; schools made their submissions to Ofqual months ago and the flaws of the algorithm were exposed even before that.

If students find themselves at their insurance choices, they will not forgive how long it took Gavin Williamson to act. Clearly, he must go – of his own volition or not – and an immediate review set on its way so we can understand the story that empowered an algorithm over a profession, that saw guidance rewritten only to be withdrawn, and left students with confusion instead of closure.

The government failed the test and lessons must be learnt.


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One comment

  1. Mike Strickland

    If this was a failing in a technical context, where objective science was brought to bear on the problem, you would want to do a root-cause analysis and properly address the point at which things started going wrong. You have made good points about university intakes and year 12 students, but no comment on how CAG estimates ended up so badly out of line with expected normal grade distributions, how to understand which centres got their predictions higher and which lower, and why, and how to ensure that in future this estimating process is fit-for-purpose. It was this failure of assessment centres to grade properly which lead to the subsequent catalogue of mistakes, and a correct, objective and scientific assessment to ensure lessons are learned properly needs to begin with “root cause” and only move on to the subsequent mistakes once that root cause is addressed.