Socialist Worker

Unfair exam grades still punishing students

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2719

Students protest outside Downing Street

Students protest outside Downing Street (Pic: Guy Smallman)


A fresh row has broken out over exam grades. And it exposes the way that the system operates to drive down the results of working class children.

Fury at the downgrading of A-Level and GCSE grades forced the Tories into a humiliating U-turn last week. They agreed that students could use “centre assessed grades” instead of grades calculated by a dodgy algorithm. 

The centre assessed grades were based on teacher assessments. But they also underwent a process of moderation. 

Now some schools are complaining that they followed Tory advice to mark students down—and they want the right to challenge the grades. 

The row has seen David Blow from the Ofqual exams regulator demand that schools have the right to appeal over the grades. 

He said schools are “coming under attack from parents and students” over the scandal.

“They heeded the call from education secretary Gavin Williamson to ensure that distribution of grades followed a similar pattern to that in other years, i.e. following the calculated grades model,” he said. 

“These schools are now in an unfair position in comparison with others, which focused on individual pupil grades.” 

Futures ruined by Tories’ rigged results
Futures ruined by Tories’ rigged results
  Read More

He said schools should be allowed to resubmit grades ­“without having to include unrepresentative previous years’ performance in the calculation”. 

The whole scandal has shown how the education system is stitched up to disadvantage ordinary children. It is based on the idea that only a certain number of students will ever achieve the highest grades. 

And because students at the top schools have a huge advantage over others, their schools tend to produce higher results on average. These figures are then used to downgrade students at state schools, who are just not expected to do very well. 

Every year right wing politicians and media pundits bemoan “grade inflation” and claim that exams are becoming “too easy”. The reality is that, even when working class students do well, there are checks and balances to push them back into their “place”. 

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) also advised schools to look at previous results and “fit the pupils to the grades allocated”. 

It said the “great advantage” of this is that grades “will be exactly consistent with those of previous and succeeding years”. 

So students are judged not on their abilities but by the school they go to. And if a school is deemed to perform poorly in one year, it will do so forever. 

Meanwhile BTec students are still waiting to receive their results. And the Tories’ delay in altering grades means chaos for many students’ university applications. 

Everyone who protested should be proud that they forced the Tories back. But we need to keep fighting to scrap the rigged exam system altogether.


Campaign demands a fundamental change to biased education system

NUS president Larissa Kennedy

NUS president Larissa Kennedy (Pic: Socialist Worker)


Students, education workers and others have continued to protest over the exams grading scandal. They say the U-turn is not enough—and want more fundamental change.

NUS president Larissa Kennedy told Socialist Worker, “This scandal has hit students right now. But it also exposes problems at the heart of the exams system-such as classism, racism and disablism. 

“It wasn’t a mistake that students were downgraded. It was the logical outcome of the system.” 

Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU union, told Socialist Worker, “The government tried to hide behind the idea that the algorithm is neutral. They are terrified of people who take action. 

“Now staff who have been fighting to save jobs are expected to pick up the pieces.” 

Grady said that the UCU is demanding more funding for colleges and universities. But she added, “Funding is important but it doesn’t solve the broader issues. We need to dismantle our marketised education system.” 

The NUS held small gatherings in protest at the scandal on Thursday of last week. Students also gathered at Downing Street on Friday of last week to demand the right of appeal and transparency over BTec results.

They demanded that Tory education secretary Gavin Williamson resign, chanting, “Get Gav gone.” 

The U-turn means the protests are smaller. But for many people, the scandal has exposed the inequality at the heart of the system. 

BTec student Glen told the protest that class bias lies behind the scandal. He asked, “Why do they assume that children in state schools are going to do badly? Why do they think we are not worthy of good results? Because they don’t value people who aren’t like them.” 

Primary school teacher Emma brought solidarity from the NEU union. “The Tory government is cheating young people of their futures,” she said. 

“This exams system has got to go.” 

Student Zoe said the fight had to continue “for people in year 10 and year 12” who are due to sit exams next year. “How are they supposed to trust Gavin Williamson with their education?” she asked. 

“He’s already mucked it up for us.” 

Teacher Alasdair said that the algorithm that caused this year’s scandal “has been used for over ten years”. 

“The system is about separating the sheep from the goats,” he said. “They have been rationing success for years. This is going to happen again unless there’s action.” 

Larissa agreed. “This is not just about the here and now,” she said. “It’s about uprooting the whole discriminatory education system. We want justice for every student, every year.”


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