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Sophia Waugh - Williamson's war on the clever poor

Regulars | By Sophia Waugh

By Chris McAndrew, CC BY 3.0,

Students' hard work undone

Algorithm. A word I sort of knew the meaning of but in a vague, it’s-something-

to-do-with-maths-and-computers-and-I- don’t-really-care kind of way.

Until suddenly I did care; it was the application of the algorithm that made such a mess of things – along with the determination of a man who probably understood the algorithm as little as I did but was determined to adhere to it.

Gavin Williamson’s stubbornness – not his U-turn – was what marked him out as a stupid and craven man. And his excuses, when he did finally give in to sense, only underlined those attributes.

From the moment it was announced (in March) that there were to be no public exams this summer, the top priority of anyone even tangentially involved in education should have been to create a coherent and fair (as fair as possible) way to award the grades.

Yet Williamson took almost a week after the fiasco of the A-level results to say he was sorry, saying that he had realised ‘over the weekend’ that there might be some sort of a problem. Perhaps, after all, the best way of giving the grades was to ask the teachers who had worked with these students for two years.

For us who work in schools with 11- to 16-year-olds, the announcement came just in time. Our school would have suffered on account of the algorithm, which downgraded state-school A-level pupils because they came from a poor area or were in a school without a good success rate.

Williamson’s original A-level results had one very direct result – they penalised the clever poor. And, by doing so, they created a deep distrust in the system which claims to be all about equality of education.

When I went online to view my pupils’ results, I knew there would be no surprises. So, in comparison with other years when my heart is in my mouth for my borderline pupils, the emotion was a little flat.

Yet there was still something marvellous in seeing a 5 (good pass) for one EAL (English as an additional language) boy. He was predicted a low 4 by the computer when he entered the school but had been working at a 5, verging on a 6, by the time I entered my predicted grades.

And the machine would have given a couple of girls in that class a 4 or 5 as the machine would not have known how little they came to school, how very little work they did or how disruptive they were. I could have as little borne to see them be given 5s as I could to see this boy be given a 4.

So for this year’s GCSE students, at least, there was a fair and happy outcome. But what about the A-level students whose university places were given away before the results reversal and who are now having to settle for universities or courses that are not those they would have wanted? Clever, hardworking, ambitious students who still face the chaos from the fallout? What about next year’s A-level and GCSE students who have missed out on a chunk of learning – or at any rate a chunk of teaching?

Even if next year’s schooling is not interrupted by a second spike or a second closure, these students are at a huge disadvantage. Whom can they trust? Whom can we trust? I don’t think there’s a teacher in the land who thinks that Williamson should stay in office.

In a week or so, we all go back to school. Our children may have finally been given the grades that we deemed to be fair – but we are still a long way from satisfied.

This story was from October 2020 issue. Subscribe Now