No cynicism a step too far

One might now be wondering what examinations are for. On Wednesday 18 March, the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson managed to say little of substance in his House of Commons announcement regarding the fate of this year’s public GCSE and A-level examinations, so one wouldn’t have expected him to attempt to explain their function at any time, pandemic or no pandemic. The Prime Minister had already declared (here) that examinations scheduled for May/June wouldn’t take place (‘we will make sure that pupils get the qualifications they need and deserve’) and Williamson, blagging like his master, was allowed to evade the issue time and again because no one there in the House managed to ask questions that might have forced him to give a straight answer. Accountability, anyone?

On the Parliament website (here), a brief summary of Williamson’s announcement emphasises Angela Rayner’s gratitude (‘The steps that have finally been taken today are welcome …’) as though one might already speak of Blatcherism 2.0. However, we must go to Hansard (here) to do justice to both Williamson’s performance and the lamentable state of the questions asked in Parliament on this occasion.

Williamson claimed: ‘We are working closely with Ofqual on a detailed set of measures that make sure that no child is unfairly penalised.’ One might have asked – no one did – why he had come to the Commons without details of these ‘measures’, unless discussions, like those with manufacturers (here), were at best an afterthought and even, in part at least, a figment of the ministerial imagination, something they’ll get round to eventually. Later he added: ‘We will also be looking to ensure that those who do not feel that the result is truly reflective of their work have a proper and substantive appeal mechanism.’ When, later still, he repeated the line about no exams taking place this year, he might have been asked if a new exam session might be scheduled for the autumn – September, say, or even November – with university courses starting, as some do already, in the new year. No one in Parliament asked this question. And then: ‘We are looking at putting in place additional measures, such as enabling a child rapidly to take a fresh set of tests or exams.’ Is this what ‘working closely with Ofqual’ means? Again – if this is the case, why were no details available to be included in this statement to Parliament? I hold in my hand a sheet of paper; I’ll let you know what’s on it when I’ve decided – or when Dominic has decided – what to write. Does ‘additional measures’ refer to a one-off exam session in the autumn or a kind of retake system for exams that hadn’t been taken, presumably on the basis that the ‘detailed set of measures to make sure that no child is unfairly penalised’ meant students could opt for exams if they didn’t like the grade they were given, aka the ‘substantive appeal mechanism’?

None of this was clarified, meaning that schools would close on Friday with no one knowing if exams would, indeed, take place, eventually. Williamson did promise ‘to publish further advice on A-levels next week’, but then slipped out a press release Friday afternoon (here), one overshadowed by the Johnson/Sunak press conference at 5 pm. At some point ‘more detailed guidance was published (here). It is extraordinary to think that any of the information contained in either the press release or the guidance couldn’t have been included on Wednesday. Moreover, it was interesting that a Guardian report (here) published at 5.40 led with and concentrated on the possibility that some schools might go for alternative exams, those not yet cancelled (an option closed off in the DfE’s guidance). A reference to the press release was tacked on the end as an afterthought.

All of this has been frustrating, to say the least, and that was doubtless always the intention. As elsewhere in the current crisis, the careful organisation of what is said and when fits the profile of a government committed to a model of disaster capitalism, a government that cares little for the impact on people generally, one that seeks only to increase anxiety. We’re told (here) that herd immunity is the way forward, and then (here) told it was never part of the plan after all; all they have ever wanted to do, apparently, is ‘protect life’. Since the December election – and opinion polls have helpfully appeared (here) and (here) to confirm that voters don’t regret producing a Johnson government, far from it – there has been a series of stunts orchestrated by Dominic Cummings, most obviously the decision to offer a job to Andrew Sabisky (here), all designed to see what can be said and how, and what the response will be. The handling of the coronavirus epidemic hasn’t been shambolic, far from it; and the way changes to assessment have been announced this week, fit the pattern. On Wednesday, when he wasn’t cancelling exams, Johnson was allowing pubs and restaurants to stay open but telling people not to go there. It was only on Friday, in the announcement that included nothing on education, that pubs and restaurants were finally told to close. In this report published just after the Friday press conference, The Guardian (here) went with ‘the latest example of the government scrambling to catch up with events’ because, well, The Guardian is still in denial.

So what, after all, are examinations for? One might suggest there is no longer a reason for GCSEs at 16 (here): do public examinations, then, serve no purpose other than to allow the Government to produce league tables and manufacture both ‘success’ and ‘failure’? As regards A-levels, in the last few years, there has been a steady increase in the number of unconditional offers made to students applying to university (here), leading to the possibility of a higher drop-out rate (here). Do universities even care any longer (here)? One might also ask what the purpose of A‑levels has ever been, but that is a step too far, I suppose. Universities might well insist that unconditional offers still account for but a small number of the total offers made; but The Telegraph (here) indicates the level of concern within a Conservative Party always horrified by the prospect of falling standards, and there are indications (here) that this is one aspect of the free market a Conservative government would hope to eliminate. In conclusion, one might dwell, therefore, on a contradiction contained in this week’s announcements. Williamson has insisted ‘the work [students] have done [will be] properly reflected’ in the grades awarded; if so, and he expects the validity of grades to be maintained, why won’t league (‘performance’) tables be published this year?

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