It will have come as little surprise to many that the current Government is nasty. Indeed even columnists for the Times newspaper openly state that – ‘Tories are expected to be bastards — this is priced in’. Some who voted for them may have done so while holding their nose however what has come as a surprise to many is just how the party labelled ‘nasty’ has also become inextricably linked with being consistently incompetent and utterly useless. At this stage, there is little need to list the many disasters, catastrophes and outright lies that we have witnessed over the last few months, in fact, it would be easier and quicker to list their successes, which are scant. Nonetheless, the news last weeks about how the government proposed to treat asylum seekers – with talk of wave machines and floating barriers to stop boats and detention on offshore islands or disused ferries seems worth mentioning as an example of their extreme stupidity and meanness.
But among their biggest policy failures have been those in education brought about by the COVID crisis. Here there are three linked fiascos, first schools remaining open, then A-Level results and finally universities.
Johnson initially promised that schools in England would reopen at the beginning of June after they had been shut in March. Still, then the government struggled with attempts to get all pupils back into classrooms before the summer break, with most managing only a limited opening. This meant that a significant proportion of children received little or no formal education for six months.
Then there was the secondary school’s results debacle. Because of COVID, no students sat exams in the summer. Rather, the teacher predicted grades and class rankings were sent to Ofqual, who used an algorithm to arrive at results. One of the main requirements of the algorithm was stopping ‘grade inflation’. But the A-Level grades awarded via this system downgraded 40 per cent of teacher predictions. It turned out that Ofqual did not use teacher predictions as the main element of their calculations. Often they formed no part of the process. Instead, the Ofqual algorithm used the class rankings and the school’s past performance to award grades.
Predictably this caused anomalies, as good students at poorly performing schools found that their predicted As or Bs became Ds or Es. Also, the algorithm was not designed to work with small class sizes, and so in these cases, the teacher awarded grades were used. This meant that private schools were favoured, while those in more impoverished areas absorbed the bulk of the downgrading. The end result was “grade inflation for the already privileged and little or nothing for the rest”. Initially, the government claimed that they had confidence in the results, with Johnson declaring “Let’s be in no doubt about it, the exam results that we’ve got today are robust, they’re good, they’re dependable for employers”. After widespread protests (including the memorable teenage placard ‘Fuck The Algorithm!’) and disquiet from Tory backbenchers, the inevitable U-turn came days later.
Yet these few days caused turmoil in university admissions, with academics and administrators, already overstretched since March, having to cope with two different sets of results arriving within a week. “The chaos around A-Levels was the final straw for many. Some staff are burnt out, depressed and, frankly, adrift”.
This brings us to the final education debacle – the return of students to university at the start of the academic year. Over the last two weeks, the news has been dominated by outbreaks of COVID at Universities across the UK. Many campuses are reporting hundreds of students testing positive for COVID. While it could be the case that many of these students will experience no more than mild symptoms, a significant minority of students do have pre-existing vulnerabilities. And, of course, many of the staff at university will be older, and some will have comorbidities – both factors that mean they are more likely to suffer complications if infected. Not to mention the host of other university staff involved in campus services, catering, cleaning and so forth who may well be on far more precarious contracts of employment and unable to work from home. The return of students to campuses represents a public health challenge to the wider communities with students moving around the country and mixing more widely than they would while at home. This has prompted Universities to try to assuage the fears of local communities who might assume the return of students will inevitably lead to reckless behaviour. This statement is from the Oxford SU:
While some call for students and young people, in general, to take COVID seriously, we might also question what has led us to this situation. The attempts to blame young people for the spread of infection neatly fit into the oversensitive ‘snowflake’ vs entitled and irresponsible dichotomy that is often used to characterise students. Yet this debacle, like the others, was both predicted and predictable. To allow the mass movement of large numbers of people around the country before an adequate track and trace system was running is another unforced failure on the part of the government. For many courses, it would have made more sense to allow students who could do so to stay away from campus for teaching, which will mainly be delivered online anyway. This would have allowed those who needed to be on campus (e.g. for courses with a practical component) to do so more safely. Yet following the widespread marketisation of higher education, universities had little choice about attempting to get as many students back on campus as possible to cover fees and accommodation costs.
The many failures in education, at primary, secondary, further and higher levels, over the last six months of the COVID pandemic show that the government and ministers were not able to manage problems that were anticipated and expected. They also expose the inequalities that exist and are made worst by the COVID pandemic. In the case of schools, A-level results and return to Universities it is those in the most precarious positions who will suffer most. And it is this government, who claimed to want to be levelling up, that seems indifferent about how their policy failures are contributing to a levelling down.