A-Level controversy: Michael Gove’s all-or-nothing education reforms come back to bite the Tories

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The Tory party’s handling of the A-Level grades controversy has been nothing short of farcical.

In recent days, we’ve seen U-turn after U-turn, last-minute change after last-minute change until education secretary Gavin Williamson finally accepted that the fairest way to grade students who were unable to sit exams was to trust teacher assessments.

While he was busy causing students an excessive amount of unnecessary stress, Williamson seemed to forget that it was people’s futures he was playing with.

The seeds of this crisis were sown in 2013, however, when the then education secretary Michael Gove announced a series of sweeping changes to GCSE and A-Level courses aimed at making the courses more “rigorous”. 

These changes included, amongst other things, scrapping coursework for the majority of subjects and assessing students solely on one exam or a series of exams at the end of a two-year course, with no same-year re-sits. 

Such an inflexible system does not provide for contingencies, like a pandemic.

If something goes wrong, and students are unable to sit exams, there is suddenly no assessed coursework for their grades to be based on. Surely externally moderated coursework provides a more reliable projection of a student’s ability than algorithms and the achievements of previous cohorts?

Gove’s argument against coursework and controlled assessment was based on the belief that these modes of assessment are less intense and susceptible to cheating whereas exams “drive equality” by ensuring a level playing field; the parental help and access to better resources that privileged students might enjoy are taken out of the equation.

Having to prepare for and take exams, Gove claimed, gives students the skills they need to succeed in the modern world. 

Upon inspection however, all these arguments show themselves to be incredibly flimsy.  

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Firstly, all the factors that might put privileged students at an advantage when doing coursework clearly apply to taking exams as well. Parents and better resources can still help with revision. Smaller class sizes and more individual attention at private schools are likely to mean students go into exams better prepared.

On this matter, the statistics speak for themselves. This year, the number of grades at A and above rose by 4.7 points in private schools but by just 0.3 points at state sixth-form colleges.

In 2018, a study found that almost half of “clever but disadvantaged” students failed to secure top GCSE grades. Just 52% of the disadvantaged high achievers at primary school gained at least five A* and A grades in England, compared with 72% of their wealthier, equally clever, peers.

Secondly, in the words of Mary Bousted, General-Secretary of The National Education Union, “end-of-course exams on a single-day test recall and memory rather than the range of skills that young people need in the 21st century.”

In contrast, coursework requires independent research and broad reading to produce an extended project, which is the essence of most university courses, the very thing A-Levels are supposed to lead towards. Succeeding in coursework requires developing a far broader set of skills than the dull memorisation required by exams. 

Furthermore, it is well known that different modes of assessment suit different learning styles, so surely the fairest way to award grades is to build up a broad picture of a students’ ability over a longer period of time? Gove repeatedly claimed that he wanted students to leave school “well-rounded,” but he was not forward-thinking enough to support a well-rounded system of assessment to compliment this.

Perhaps there is some truth in Gove’s claim that coursework and controlled assessment is more susceptible to cheating, but surely this possibility could be guarded against with better monitoring and stricter regulations, and surely this potential risk is outweighed by the huge strain all-or-nothing exams put on students’ mental health?

This year’s A-Level grades delivered injustice to many, but beyond that, they exposed the flaws of a system based solely on end-of-course exams. If students already had some grades in the bag from coursework or AS Levels, reliably projecting a grade would have been far more straightforward, and this whole fiasco could have been avoided.

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