LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced mounting calls Sunday to sort out a crisis over how crucial final grades are being awarded to high school students in England during the pandemic. Hundreds of students took to the streets of London to protest what they consider a grave injustice.
Gathering outside the Department for Education, the students vented frustration at a system that has already seen 40% of final-year A-level students receive lower grades than those predicted by their teachers. Since the grades are key markers to get into college, many students are clearly fearful the lower grades will jeopardize or limit their educational and vocational options.
Because English students couldn’t take their exams this summer as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, hundreds of thousands of them have been assessed via a complicated “moderation” algorithm. Many students, parents and even some teachers say the algorithm is flawed.
A-level results, the exams for 18-year-olds on a handful of subjects taken just before getting into universities, were awarded Thursday. The more general GCSE results for 16-year-old students are due next Thursday.
Olivia Styles, 18, who ended up receiving lower grades than those projected by her teachers, burnt her results before the cheering crowd in central London even though her university plans had not been affected.
“By burning them, it’s sort of saying I don’t accept these results. These are not what I wanted, these are not what I deserved,” she said. “I want the results I’ve worked hard for over the past two years. I don’t want this piece of paper to define me as a person.”
The government has said the process was necessary to prevent “grade inflation” that it thinks would render the results worthless.
Critics say there are flaws in the methodology used, including a link with a school’s past performance, which has meant thousands of bright students were effectively penalized for being at a historically underperforming school.
In an attempt to douse concerns, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson indicated that students could use the highest result out of their teacher’s predicted grade, any trial exam they took before the pandemic, or sitting an actual exam in coming months. Williamson, who has also faced acute criticism for failing to get all schools back in June as originally planned, termed this a “triple lock process” that should give students “added security.”
However, on Saturday, England’s exam regulator Ofqual issued guidance that appeared to contradict Williamson, favoring teacher evaluations over trial exams, conflicts that would complicate any student’s appeal.
Hours later though, it announced a review on its own just-published appeals guidance. In a brief statement, it said the policy setting out the criteria for students to appeal their results was “being reviewed” by its board and that further information would be released “in due course.” No reason was provided for the sudden change.
Robert Halfon, a member of Johnson’s Conservative Party and chairman of parliament’s education committee, called the situation a “huge mess” that is “unacceptable.”
“Students and teachers are incredibly anxious — particularly the students who are worried about their future,” he told the BBC. “This has got to be sorted out.”
Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, bemoaned weeks of “chaos, confusion and incompetence” from the Conservative government and Johnson, who is thought to be on holiday.
Starmer urged a return to teacher assessments for A-level results — as has occurred in Scotland — and demanded “urgent action to avoid the same injustice” in the coming week’s GCSE results.
“Boris Johnson has been invisible during this crisis,” Starmer said in a tweet. “He needs to take personal responsibility, and fix it.”
Britain has Europe’s highest confirmed death toll in the pandemic, at nearly 46,800 deaths. Since students in England normally leave for their summer vacations in late July, they have missed weeks more of scheduled school than American students during the pandemic.
The government has vowed that all schools in England will reopen in September.
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