Three locks, but the credibility horse has bolted

“I still remember that nerve-wracking morning”, says Gavin Williamson in the Telegraph today, as he prepares for another.

His big message to the country? Teacher predicted grades would have meant people end up in jobs they’re not qualified for. And we can’t have that.

“Results day”, says Gavin, “is an educational rite of passage, a life-defining moment, a milestone that marks the culmination of years of hard work and this year it’s no different for the hundreds of thousands of students getting their grades this morning”.

He’s probably right, but his junior ministers spent much of the day telling students not to worry so much about grades, stressing that universities would be “flexible” in accepting students’ lower grades, misunderstanding how important the mark at 18 is as a way of capping off the compulsory schooling experience.

June 30th: Michelle Donelan launches stinging attack on universities for using flexibility and judgment over lower entry grades for students with potential.

Aug 11th: Michelle Donelan demands that universities use flexibility and judgment over lower entry grades because reasons.

Universities – especially those we might describe as “recruiting” universities – are being positive too, not least because the more they show the warm glow of flexibility, the more likely it is that the icey numbers cap melts. There are real world problems here – DfE thinks the only thing that stops a course from being full is its numbers cap, but of course in actual universities some courses can expand and some can’t. The complexities of “holding open” places for students who might win an appeal, and EU students who might not pitch up at all, are largely all still unresolved.

Gavin’s central message on standards is an interesting one. On the one hand he’s against grade inflation because it would devalue the grades that students get, but on the other hand he’s pleased that students will be able to appeal based on their mocks. Either he’s actually developed a system that in the end delivers lots of grade inflation, or he’s pretending his appeals system will help when it won’t. Both can’t be true.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb says the triple lock “will only affect a small group of people”, and that most young people “will get the grade that the teacher sent in to the exam board that they thought they would get”. Was he sent out thinking the “use your mocks” results component would only apply if a grade was moderated down? Williamson of course says mocks can be used to challenge any grade. If you sat one. At the right time. In the right school. In the right way.

Wales? Kirsty Williams’ Houdini move has been to go for “no detriment” – you can’t do worse than you did in your AS levels. Some people think that’s as dangerous as Williamson and mocks, but those people underestimate how robust AS levels are in comparison to mocks – and they undervalue the role that provider confidence has in educational political decision making.

Plenty of others have already noted that the central fault in all four nations’ approaches to this crisis has been a tendency to assume that collective, algorithmic fairness will somehow end up translating into fairness for all. That’s true. It’s… surprising that even today, Gavin Williamson is clinging to some fantasy of being carried through the streets, lauded a hero for protecting the “integrity” of made up moderated exam results when there weren’t exams in a pandemic. Less defensible is the tin-eared message that “The class of 2020 is not going to lose out because of Covid-19 and their futures are going to be as full of promise as in every other year”. Read the room, Gav.

But there’s something else going on here that makes his decision to double down even more astonishing. The reason the Scottish solution has worked, and the Welsh solution may well work, is that both decisions result in widespread defence. Heads and teachers generate a chorus of goodwill. But Gavin’s solution literally guarantees that hundreds of thousands of respected local professionals that young people and families trust will be saying “yeah, it’s awful, disgrace that Gavin”. It reminds us that political decision making is as much about being technically right as it is about having lots of people saying “Great! Nice one! Good shout!”

There aren’t many of those this morning.

One response to “Three locks, but the credibility horse has bolted

  1. The bit where DfE/government/Ofqual lost me today was the moment a great feeder school of ours told me about the ‘standardisation’ of their Biology results which had seen an estimated A* move to a C with a class rank of 2 where class ranks of 4-8 got Bs. How can this be right?

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