Class is trashing the lives of hundreds of thousands of students. The downgrading of swathes of A-Level students’ grades in England and Wales has exposed how the system operates to keep working class people in check.
Young people are told that if they work hard and have “aspirations” then they will do well. It isn’t true.
Students aren’t judged on their abilities. They’re judged on where they come from.
“This is definitely about deprivation,” student Ahmad told Socialist Worker.
“I live in Aston in Birmingham. It’s classed as a deprived area. My school said that I should get ABC grades. When I got my results, they were CDE.
“My mate is doing medicine and was predicted ABB or AAB. For one subject he received a D. It’s tough to live in these areas.”
Many students on course for C grades were downgraded to a U. One student, a native Spanish speaker, expected an A in Spanish. She got a U.
Sarah is a teacher and Head of Sixth Form at a school in west London.
She told LBC radio that she had “never been so disgusted” as she was on A-Level results morning.
“We have a medical course where nine students were predicted a C,” she said. “All nine have gone down to a U.”
Sarah said that the government should accept grades predicted by teachers. “The government needs to do a big fat U-turn now,” she said.
The furore follows furious student protests in Scotland that forced a government retreat over downgrading.
John, a 16 year old student in Dundee, told Socialist Worker he was “disappointed and confused” when he first received his results. “All through my classes, I was straight As,” he said. “And then I got a B in Maths.
“I spoke to other people and it was the same. One boy even got 89 percent and they brought him down to a B. I thought it was appalling.”
Students’ grades have been determined by a “standardisation” system. This decides results partly on the past performance of a school, sixth form or college, and hands higher grades to students in richer areas.
Parent Susan, whose son was downgraded, said his school is in “quite a deprived area of Glasgow”.
“It is a postcode lottery,” she told Socialist Worker. “I think it’s unfair. I can remember from my school days that you’re always told it’s down to you. They say you need to put the work in, if you study hard you’ll get the results.
“But it all seems to depend on the performance of the school, which is impacted by the area.”
John said the bias is clear. “I’ve been to a few different high schools,” he said.
“One ranked very highly. When I spoke to people there, most had got their straight As. In my school our entire Maths class was on for an A, but in the end only two people got an A.”
Bristol student Izzy told Socialist Worker it is “horrible” for people to be downgraded based on their school. “It reinforces the inequality that’s in the exam system anyway,” she said.
London student Julia is worried about how the chaos will affect students like her, due to take A-Levels next year. She helped set up a Twitter group to fight for students’ rights after joking with her friends about “having a revolution”.
“Private schools have an unfair way of getting the top marks,” Julia told Socialist Worker. “It’s quite classist. If your school has a history of low grades, that determines your grade.
“But private schools are going to get higher grades, because people pay for the best education. More people from private schools get into Oxford. And Eton can get you into any university you like, even if you don’t achieve the grades.”
Figures from exam regulator Ofqual confirmed that the system benefits richer students. Private schools saw a 4.7 percent rise in students getting As or higher between 2019 and 2020.
The figure for secondary comprehensives was 2 percent, and for sixth forms and FE colleges just 0.3 percent.
Nearly half of grades, 48.6 percent, at private schools were A or higher, compared to 21.8 percent at secondary comprehensives and 20.8 percent at sixth forms and FE colleges.
Poorer children were more likely to have the grades proposed by their teachers overruled.
The scandal means many students can’t go to the university they had hoped to—if they go at all.
“I wanted to go to Aston university,” said Ahmad. “But they said they can only accept me if I get my grades. I phoned my school and they don’t even know what’s happening with the appeal process.
“I don’t understand how Gavin Williamson and the rest of the ministers can let this happen. It’s classic Tory behaviour and it’s very prejudiced.”
The Tories claim that their system is fair because students can appeal to use their mock exam results or can sit an exam in the autumn.
Julia added, “I feel the year 13s are really going to be screwed up for the future. A lot of people missed out on university grades, but it’s not their fault.
“Even if people use their mock results or do resits, it’s not entirely fair.”
Mock exams, or prelims in Scotland, are carried out differently in individual schools. Many students do better in final exams than in practice tests. And there are other problems with basing final results on them.
Susan said her son had “always been top of the class for Maths” but initially got a C as his final result.
Even a fresh assessment is likely not to give him the result he deserves.
“The Maths teacher recommended a B based on his prelim,” she said. “But they were asked questions on that prelim on things that they hadn’t yet been taught.
“Teachers said it was deliberately hard, and nobody did well in it. So even basing the B on that prelim is unfair.”
John said downgrading has caused “lots of stress, especially for people who had conditional places for colleges”.
Izzy added, “They say results don’t define you. But we are judged so much on our grades.”
Julia agreed. “You get into the mindset that, if you fail, you’re not going to get far in life,” she said.
Students feel their futures are being trashed—by downgraded results and by a lack of jobs due to the coronavirus crisis. Both reflect how the system fails working class people and protects those at the top.
“The system basically means the ones who are richer are going to go further,” said Julia. “We don’t have the same opportunities, even if we work hard our whole lives.”
‘Education is a right, but it’s become a privilege’
The coronavirus crisis has created “stark discrepancies” in students’ experiences based on their background.
Researchers Professor Kalwant Bhopal and Dr Martin Myers surveyed 500 students who had exams cancelled this year, followed by 53 interviews.
“The differences we found were mainly around ethnicity,” Kalwant told Socialist Worker. “The majority of white students, 82 percent, were satisfied with how their school had managed the crisis.
“But only 67 percent of black pupils and 42 percent of Asian pupils felt satisfied.
“Many Asian students felt they were high achievers, but that they were seen as not very good in schools.”
Just 21 percent of students were happy that exams had been cancelled because they didn’t trust their grades to be estimated accurately.
“They felt the process was unfair,” said Kalwant.
“One student said he didn’t do that well in his mocks but felt he would be able to do better. Another had a sibling who was predicted ABB but in the exam got A*AA.
“Students also fear they will be identified as the ‘Covid-19 generation’. There’s a notion that they have been hard done by. And that something has been taken away from them.”
Researchers found a gap between students in private and state schools. “Some 81 percent of those in fee-paying independent schools were satisfied with their school, compared to 67 percent in state comprehensives,” said Kalwant.
She said the scandal shone a light on “already existing inequalities”.
“One student from a fee-paying school told us, ‘Independent schools can play the system to their advantage’,” she said.
“They have their own rules—different exams, different exam boards.
“I believe that education is a right, but it’s become a privilege. If you have the money, you can move to a ‘good’ area and send your children to a ‘good’ school.
“But what about the working parents in poverty who have to go to food banks and send their children to underfunded schools?
“There are going to be a lot of students who will feel this system is unfair—and it is.”
Protest force Scottish retreat
Students in Scotland are waiting to receive their updated grades, and many remain uncertain about their futures.
There is anger at the Scottish National Party (SNP).
Susan said the government’s U-turn only came after students protested. “At first the Scottish government stuck to their guns,” she said.
“Kids were left in limbo for about a week. That’s a long time when your whole future is in the balance.
“Backtracking a week later isn’t good enough. It should never have happened in the first place.”
John agreed. “I’m glad they came to their senses,” he said.
“But they only went back on it after a lot of people were asking them to resign.
“I’ve always thought they were one of the better parties.
“For the SNP to do that has lost them quite a lot of trust and respect.”