England Was Right To Return To Pre-Pandemic Marking For A-Levels

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Student completing an exam paper
Photo by Kristina Gadeikyte on Unsplash

I opened my A-Level results envelope three years ago, and no matter how many years roll by, I think I will always feel a slight pang of nerves for every year group that has followed me in receiving their grades. I have very vivid memories of that day.

It was drizzling, and I walked to my friend’s house to get a lift to the Sixth Form common room. When we got there, it was practically empty apart from a few teachers dotted around, each with slightly discomforted looks on their faces. I did not want to wait, so I grabbed my envelope and ripped it open, without taking much time to think about the significance of the moment for the rest of my life. I was one of the lucky ones. I got the grades I needed to go to my dream university, and I was overwhelmed with joy at that moment. During my private celebration, which included some very embarrassing dancing on the spot and a big stupid grin, one of my friends got her results, and was not as lucky as me. She walked down the corridor crying, and a teacher followed her for the typical ‘it will be alright, you have plenty of options speech’. When I heard this echoed, I quickly stopped dancing and left my common room for the last time.

That was in 2020, and to say it felt like a bubble is an understatement. In every sense the road to gripping that envelope felt like a whirlwind. Former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson was stoking outrage for his handling of results in a fresh pandemic world, and back then I do not think I fully appreciated just how different my year group had it. To this day I stand by the fact that I would not have gotten into my top choice if it hadn’t been for my COVID-boosted grades. Since that day, it has felt like A-Level results day has taken on a different, more precarious significance for both students, and typically, the government. With news of different approaches to A-Level grading this year between England, Wales and Northern Ireland, it is definitive proof that we have not learnt the key lesson we needed to: you simply cannot play politics when it comes to young people’s education.

The Issue With Grading Leniency

Regulators in Wales and Northern Ireland have been more lenient this year compared to England, taking into account the long-term effects of the pandemic on young people’s education. Whilst I commend the attempt to be fairer to young people, and this is obviously not a nice decision to make for anyone’s future, the way our education is set up around exams, all they are doing in reality is delaying the issue that England is facing right now. Our education progression relies on exam-based barriers, and issues with this aside, there has to be some sort of underlying basis for how it works, if this is the way we wish to continue even if it is archaic and an unhelpful way of assessing a student’s abilities.

No education board wants to be responsible for denying someone a path to their dream school, but without a certain ruthlessness to justify a ruthless exam process, the whole thing loses all sense of weight and purpose. Exams are essentially memory tests, and not indicative of how knowledge is used in the real world. However, with such an outdated system must come the consequences of that system. Wales and Northern Ireland are being fairer to students this year, but next year they will come under fire for being unfair. There will not be a year group for the foreseeable future that does not have the right to complain that COVID interrupted their education, and the longer they appease young people, despite the awful circumstances, the longer the issue will be dragged on for.  Although this has not been mentioned, it is hard to think that a reason for Wales and Northern Ireland’s leniency buys them time and delays them having to make the unpopular decision that England has made this year, saving a potential political scandal that was seen in 2020 with Williamson.

Sunak’s Approach

On the other side of this comes the implicit political gain for Sunak and the Conservatives in returning to pre-pandemic style grading. Sunak has made it no secret that he wants to see an increase in economically profitable roles, and a decrease in the arts sector. Along with his announcement to extend the study of Maths and English to eighteen, there is no doubt in where his ambitions lie: not with the goals of the students, but how they can benefit his failing economy. Personally, I think that England’s decision to return to pre-pandemic grading is a smart decision, even if it does sacrifice so many people’s futures. It makes sense politically speaking, too. The Conservatives have wrestled with scandal after scandal, and with the election next year starting to come into focus for all parties, although it is a sickening thought to gamble a young person’s life for the sake of getting a scandal buried whilst they still have time before the election, politics is a sickening game.

Adding insult to injury, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan has claimed that nobody will remember students’ A-Level grades in 10 years time. The Conservatives trying to downplay their decision shows their ultimate lack of conviction. They needed to stand by their decision, because ultimately greater pandemic circumstances have created a treacherous tightrope for the government to walk across without injury. COVID has forced a temporary halt in conventional grading, and instead of highlighting how unconventional exam grading has been in the past couple of years, Keegan avoids saying it how it is, even though the government have already made the hard call. It shows a lack of political foresight, and that our government would rather play politics instead of treating young people with the respect and honesty they deserve. To save a few nasty headlines that will be forgotten by the time of the next Conservative scandal in a week, they have chosen to undermine the hard work of A-Level students.

The Political Ramifications

With this, comes the aforementioned lack of political foresight, especially when it comes to attracting key voter demographics. Young people have all too often been the victims of their government. It is no wonder why the Conservatives have struggled to attract them. As a young person who has benefited from Conservative flip-flopping with the 2020 grading scandal, it puts me in a unique position to understand the truly baffling way that the government treat young people.

I consider myself a very lucky person. I was born in 2002, and as a result eighteen years later I got lucky and did not have to sit my A-Level exams, due to a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic that nobody could have predicted. I accept my fortune, whilst also seeing that the government has continually failed my generation. Even when they make the hard call that they know will be unpopular, they still find a way to put their foot in it and say the wrong thing.

This year’s A-Level results will prove to be a turning point in how young people perceive the Conservatives. There will be countless who curse the party for ripping away their futures, and some who see through the tears that they simply got unlucky. Despite this, it will be remembered, possibly at election time when the Conservatives least need it, that it was the government’s prior history with young people that truly caused their lack of leniency to backfire on them. The fact that so many will hold this against them shows that the Conservative’s continual mishandling of young people, and the probable inevitable failure to win over their demographic. It will not come down to how they handled this year’s A-Level results, even when they did it right. It will be their previous failures that count, and it will have been this moment we find ourselves in with A-Level results that has been the straw that broke the camel’s back for so many young people across the nation.

Words by James Evenden


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