When my son sat GCSE mocks a few weeks into the spring term, I didn’t pay much attention — nor, I rather fear, did he.
He was doing two of them early, in strong subjects for him: history and PE. His plan — like that of so many teenagers — was to treat the mocks as a dry run and revise hard for the real thing in May.
It was, of course, not to be. Along came Covid and like hundreds of thousands of other schoolchildren he never got the chance to sit the actual exams.
We await the final outcome next week, when the GCSE results are released, but neither of us is particularly hopeful.
I am only grateful that this wasn’t his main exam year: that comes next spring and will present its own challenges, given how much schooling he, like every other pupil, has missed.
Students and teachers protest outside the Department for Education over A-Level results
Even so, I know how fortunate we are given what confronted pupils and parents in England and Wales this Thursday, when A-level results were released.
The feelings of so many were summed up by one distraught friend. Her eldest child was predicted all As but the grades she was awarded fell well short.
As she so poignantly put it: ‘Our kids’ futures have been downgraded. First they had their exams taken away, then their final months of school — the central focus of their lives for the past 14 years — and now they are being punished by an algorithm. It’s just so cruel.’
The family plan to appeal, but that in itself is likely to be a long, drawn-out process, with no guarantee of success and a whole lot more stress besides.
Perhaps understandably, the university for which my friend’s daughter was holding a conditional place is refusing to budge, even though she is just one estimated grade off her offer.
And that’s because for every pupil for whom the Computer Said No, some will have achieved the grades required.
Indeed, as the Government points out, the marks have actually improved overall, year on year. So why the universal despair felt by parents and pupils?
Because when you drill down into the results, a pattern emerges. The ‘standardisation’ models used to ensure a fair assessment by teachers of potential performance — the Centre Assessment Grades (CAGs), the most likely grade a student would have achieved if exams had gone ahead — actually turn out to be a cruel and pretty blunt instrument.
The regulators assumed that idealistic teachers would take an over-optimistic view of pupils’ potential, with grade inflation the result. So determined were they to account for that by algorithm that they appeared to ignore the inevitable individual injustices that would follow.
In their zeal to get the picture right overall, thousands have lost out — 40 per cent have had their scores downgraded.
Around 100 demonstrators, including pupils who received their results on Thursday, expressed anger and called for the Education Secretary to be sacked outside Downing Street
Worse still, it is the bright, hard-working youngsters in historically underperforming schools who have been penalised, while average performers in high-flying schools have had the unfair advantage.
The result — somewhat perversely for a Conservative government that has, over the years, placed so much emphasis on the importance of high-quality education for children from poorer backgrounds — is a situation where better-off, privately educated schoolchildren have fared significantly better (an unprecedented increase in As and A*s of almost 5 per cent) than those in the state sector.
Which means those with the poorest life chances — for whom school is often their only real hope of a better future — have been most adversely affected.
So the overall picture that we have ended up with is one of chaos and, dare I say it, incompetence, not only practically but also politically.
Put bluntly, parents and pupils may not forgive a Conservative government that, in their eyes, has hung them out to dry.
And, quite honestly, who can blame them? We all understand the circumstances are unprecedented.
We all appreciate the challenges of the situation. But surely we could have done better than this by our young people?
In times of crisis we want to look to our leaders and feel at the very least there is some kind of plan in place.
Sadly, the last few emotional and disordered days have delivered the opposite impression.
For the Class of Covid-19, it must seem as if the adults have left the building. It is hard to see how this opportunistic flip-flopping, policy-on-the-hoof approach to something so vital to their futures can feel like anything other than the final insult of a very difficult year.
And make no mistake, it has been very difficult.
Let’s not forget, evidence is growing that the coronavirus has very little effect on children. This week it was confirmed that just one previously healthy child had died of Covid-19 in England. Nor do they readily transmit the virus.
Marching down Whitehall towards the Department for Education on Friday afternoon, protesters chanted ‘sack Gavin Williamson’ and ‘teachers not Tories’ whilst holding placards
Had we known this earlier, the Government might never have taken the decision to close schools, or might have done so selectively, perhaps even allowing years 10 and 13 to remain in class and sit these exams as normal.
But they didn’t know, and couldn’t have taken the risk. And so, cooped up at home, unable to play sport or socialise, and deprived of the vital rhythms of school life, the nation’s youngsters have endured six months like no other.
For teenagers in particular it has been tough. Relations with parents are tricky at the best of times (I speak as the mother of a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old). They rely disproportionately on teachers, friendships and peer groups.
For those from more troubled backgrounds, school is often the only place they can enjoy a degree of routine and sanity.
It is where they can get a decent meal and constructive adult attention.
They may not realise or appreciate it, but it can be a sanctuary, a place where they can grow as individuals and escape sometimes difficult home lives. And for months, they have missed out on this vital interaction, and that is not without its consequences.
A study by the University of Oxford found that more than one-third of 13 to 18-year-olds reported high levels of loneliness during the lockdown.
In a survey of 2,036 young people aged 13 to 25, the charity Young Minds found that 80 per cent of respondents said their mental health had worsened.
Academically, the picture is not much better, and once again it is predominately students from poorer backgrounds who have missed out the most.
For all the bullish rhetoric about ‘distance learning’, the reality is that many have struggled, either because it wasn’t available to them or simply because they don’t have the self-discipline or the right home environment to make it work.
Many — and I see this among my children’s friends — have just given up, demoralised and depressed. This week will have done very little to alleviate that sense of despondency.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has insisted that he has confidence in Mr Williamson and described the system as ‘robust’. Pictured, furious students in London today
It is vital now that ministers show they understand the scale of the distress caused by the situation — and find a way of cutting Generation Covid some slack.
At the very least the Government needs to acknowledge that mistakes have been made, and give pupils whose results have fallen short of their original predictions a chance to prove the computer wrong.
That might involve giving them the option to re-take the year, or negotiating with universities to re-interview those whose offers have been withdrawn.
It most definitely means putting in place, with the utmost urgency, a quick and efficient appeals process — free of charge to state schools — that focuses less on the record of the institution and more on an individual’s past performance and track record.
Under normal circumstances I would be the last to advocate an ‘all must have prizes’ approach. In almost any other situation I would agree with the commonly held view that the integrity of the examination system must be preserved.
Nor am I generally sympathetic to the snowflakery displayed by some youngsters these days.
But this is no ordinary situation. There is no precedent for what we are living through. No established protocol, no statistical comparators, no way of knowing what the final outcome will be.
What’s needed are common sense and compassion. And both seem in woefully short supply.
Teaching unions have been locked in conflict with ministers, who have repeatedly appeared blindsided by the challenges — even though in the case of the A-Levels banana skin, they’ve had months to game responses.
Universities and other further education institutions have been caught in the middle, unable to provide much leeway on offers, lacking clarity on the Department for Education’s next moves and resistant to pupils deferring for re-sits.
Of course, exams are always fraught. They are, after all, designed to be a test, not just of knowledge but also the ability to perform under pressure.
However hard you revise, there’s always the potential for disaster. Misreading the question, spending too long on a problem or just turning over the paper to discover the one topic you didn’t quite revise has come up. These happen to even the most able pupils.
And that is why each August, for every front-page picture of photogenic twins jumping for joy with a clutch of A*s, out of shot will be a tear-stained teen shuffling away with an envelope of desultory Ds.
Sarah Vine slams the ‘chaos and incompetence’ overA Level results fiasco as the final betrayal to those children hardest hit by the coronavirus lockdown as students protest in London
The difference this year, however, is our youngsters are fighting not their own demons, and not only a pandemic that has pulled the rug from beneath all our feet — but also an unpredictable, computer-says-no algorithm which appears to have been expressly designed to make life even more difficult.
Against a background where almost everyone has benefited from crisis assistance — from emergency loans to mortgage holidays, discounted restaurant meals and beyond — for some bizarre reason we are making life harder, not easier, for our younger generation.
In the grand scheme of things — recession, years of future debt, rampant unemployment — would it have been so disastrous to have trusted the teachers in their professional assessments, and given pupils the benefit of the doubt?
As for the teachers — many of whom have worked so hard to keep the flames of learning alive during lockdown, overcoming technical, emotional and practical challenges — this must also seem like the ultimate kick in the teeth.
Could Ofqual, the exams regulator, have made it any clearer that it lacks trust in their judgment? At a time when we all need to pull together, we do not need everyone at loggerheads. Because, make no mistake, this is not over yet.
Next week it’s the turn of GCSE students, whose results determine their prospects for sixth form college. The education system is already in danger of losing many children at this stage for good.
For those in deprived inner-city areas, the lure of gangs can be hard to resist, a situation exacerbated by the length of time out of school and on the streets this year. Keeping those children in meaningful education is as important for their own prospects as it is for society in general.
And after that, it’s the big one: getting all pupils back into full-time education and keeping them there safely.
It is essential, too, that we have a workable plan in place to ensure 2021’s A-level students — of which my daughter is one — do not face the same shambolic outcome as this year’s.
Many of them are already seriously behind on coursework. How are we going to ensure they have sufficient opportunity to catch up in order to give it their best shot next May? What is going to happen in the event of a second wave?
All these questions and more require answers. Ministers, teachers and unions need to set aside their differences and focus on the only thing that matters: children.
Perhaps the Government should even contemplate a special commission, led by someone sensible and experienced such as Sir Michael Wilshaw, former Chief Inspector of Schools. I certainly don’t see how it could do any harm.
Meanwhile, if I can offer anything by way of consolation for those pupils who feel their future is unremittingly bleak, it’s this. It may seem like the end of the world now, but it’s really not.
Exams matter, but what matters more is grit, determination, and an ability to adapt to adverse circumstances. My own A-Level results read a distinctly underwhelming ADD. Or DAD, if you prefer.
At the time it felt like a catastrophe; but in the long run it didn’t make all that much of a difference.
Truth is, not everything in life is measured in academic terms, just as it is not measured in financial ones. But for the Class of Covid-19 that may seem like scant consolation now.