My blog is back from its summer break. It has been a truly hectic summer. Two topics dominated: in my shadow education role, the debacle over exams results last month and the safe return to class in September; and locally, the stop-go imposition of additional covid restrictions.
A level results day last month brought devastating news for thousands of students up and down the country, and caused them, their parents and their teachers huge stress and anxiety. As exams hadn’t been possible this year, the government, in its obsession with concerns about grade inflation, relied on an algorithm to standardise the assessments that had been made by teachers. This resulted in a staggering 40% of awards being downgraded, with students from disadvantaged backgrounds most adversely affected. Shocked and upset, many feared they would not be able to continue with the further studies or career they’d dreamed of.
After a chaotic few days, the government finally heeded calls from Labour and others, and accepted the teachers’ grades (the so-called centre assessed grades or ‘CAGs’) would apply to A levels, BTECs and GCSEs this year. That was the right decision, but it came too late to prevent a further round of chaos for universities. Students who now found they had the grades they needed for their first choice of course were told they were guaranteed a place – but universities had already filled those places. The government did lift the cap it normally imposes on student numbers, but even so, problems continue. My inbox is overflowing with concerns about appeals, about external students, about students forced to defer their entry to university to next year, and whether they’ll be liable for fees and the costs of their accommodation. We’ll continue to press ministers on all these matters, and to hold them accountable for a shambles that has its roots way back to Michael Gove, who made the situation so much worse by abolishing coursework and AS levels which could have provided an alternative form of assessment.
Meantime schools and colleges have reopened, and universities will return shortly. I want students back in class, and I pay tribute to the immense amount of work done by teachers and staff over the summer break to prepare for everyone to return safely. But they could do with more help from the government – and by that, I don’t mean sending out guidance at 9pm on a Friday night before a bank holiday, and just days before the start of the term, having abandoned schools for weeks just to get on with it – which is exactly what happened.
With students returning and more people going back to work, it’s more important than ever that the government’s under-performing test, trace and isolate scheme should be working properly. That’s particularly vital to us in Trafford, where the recent rise in our infection rate means we remain subject to local restrictions. The government manage to create chaos here too, first announcing Trafford would be released from additional restrictions, but u-turning when forced to face up to the scale of the problem and risk to residents.
Noone wants the restrictions to continue one moment longer than they have to, but it’s so important that we follow the rules so they can be lifted as soon as possible – and also important that people who have symptoms can get a test and receive the results quickly. Locally we’ve been doing well at that, and a new testing centre has opened on Trafford Park, but in some parts of the country, people are being told to drive hundreds of miles to get a test, and they wait days for the results to reach them. The Prime Minister boasted we would have a ‘world class’ test and trace system, but it’s nowhere near as good as it should be.
Meanwhile parents going back to work struggle to find the childcare they need, schools are incurring extra costs for cleaning and reconfiguring their premises, and we still don’t know what’s going to happen about exams next year. With so many questions still to be answered, it’s pretty clear that I’ll be spending the coming week on exactly the same issues as I’ve spent the summer – covid, education, and local restrictions.
Stay safe and well, everybody.