How the government’s algorithm has failed Generation Covid

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Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio 

On 13th August, thousands of students in Sussex and across the country anxiously opened their A-Level results, many to bitter disappointment and confusion. This included me. After spending half a year turning in extra essays, often working from 9am to 11pm, and using all my spare time working in the library, I was confident my teachers would give me the grades I deserved. Little did I know that they would be moderated beyond reason. I remember opening my results and just crying. All I could think was, ‘these are not my grades’, ‘I did not work for this’.

The dream, for me, was Downing College, Cambridge and thus A*AA. I was given AAB, moderated down from a prediction of three A*s. What followed was 48 hours of anxious phone calls, lengthy emails, and righteous indignation from my friends. The moderation system that compromised my future and peace of mind had affected so many around me; it was clearly completely unfair. This system directly favoured private-school students, whose predicted grades held greater weight because of tiny classes and a history of success.

For my friends and me, from Bexhill Sixth Form College and East Sussex College, we had seen the lowest increase in grades A*-A in comparison to other types of schools. The moderation effectively punished high-achieving students in low-achieving schools. It not only accepted the inequalities in the education system but honoured them. Students should not be disadvantaged by their schools in any way, but the government’s moderation ensured this. The majority of my friends are appealing one or more of their grades; they weren’t a fair reflection of our hard work or the departments’ past performance anyway. Our English department’s A*-A rate last year was about 16 per cent. This year, it’s been reduced to less than 9 per cent purely through moderation. My own sister achieved A*AA from Bexhill College two years ago, taking two of the same subjects as me. This moderation is neither accurate nor fair.

After receiving my results, I contacted my tutor and English teacher, who has given me a lot of support. She assured me that the college was appealing all of my grades and told me to inform Cambridge of my situation. As well as doing this, I contacted my MP, Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle, Conservative), who was also a major help. Both sympathised with my case, and all of my teachers at Bexhill were outraged my downgrade. I encouraged my friends to contact their MPs too, and many did, reaching out to Caroline Ansell (Eastbourne, Conservative), Maria Caulfield (Lewes, Conservative) and Peter Kyle (Hove, Labour). We had a variety of responses, some declining to help or even respond, and others, notably Peter Kyle, sympathetic and wanting to help. Huw Merriman, meanwhile, took time to understand my case in depth and then contacted the Universities Minister, discussing both my case and another. It is reassuring that members of parliament do respond and do want to help.

Universities have responded in different ways. Many have been flexible with their grade requirements, as has been the case for many of my friends. Some, like Worcester College, Oxford, have disregarded the results altogether, stating they’re inaccurate, and accepted all students. But not every university or college has the capacity for this: they’re forced to keep to a set number of students, particularly during the pandemic, and so must decide between students somehow. I was lucky: the day after I received my results and the frenzy began, Downing called me. They confirmed my place, saying that they had reviewed my application and were looking forward to seeing me in October. It is important to note that I am one of the lucky ones here. I did not have to wait for an appeals process to validate me and my grades. I also did not (thank goodness) have to take the exams in the autumn.

Now we come to the ‘triple lock’ system, which I believe is mainly rhetoric. The government has promised students that they can appeal their grades on the basis of higher mocks or take the actual exams if still unhappy. Yet mock exams vary wildly just within Sussex. Some students took formal mock exams, some took assessments with heavy preparation, and some took none at all. Furthermore, many of these are graded with purposefully inaccurate grade boundaries in order to motivate or reassure students. Meanwhile, the second ‘lock’, that students can sit exams in the autumn, just throws up more questions. Who are to teach these students? How can one re-learn two years of content in a few weeks? Why should students postpone their academic careers because of a government failure? These questions remain unanswered. I know no one considering re-taking – it is too much of a shot in the dark.

Students and teachers are still reeling from the effects of this mess. Teachers feel untrusted, students feel betrayed, and this isn’t even over. Ofqual are now changing their guidance on the appeals process. No one knows what it will look like. Year 13, soon to be joined by year 11, have had a difficult year made ridiculous by a government unwilling to listen. We can only hope they eventually decide to listen to students, teachers, and institutions and thereby find a solution.

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