Boris Johnson Backs England Exam Results Amid Student Anger

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended his government’s handling of this year’s pandemic-hit school exam scores in England, after swathes of students’ grades were downgraded by an algorithm in what the opposition Labour Party described as a “fiasco.”

With pupils unable to sit tests due to the coronavirus, teachers gave an estimate which was then adjusted by exam boards. According to the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation, 39% were downgraded by the algorithm, which also took into account students’ past test scores and -- controversially -- results achieved by past cohorts at their schools.

“I think this is a robust system and one that is dependable for employers,” Johnson told reporters during a visit to Belfast on Thursday, according to the Press Association. “It’s very important that for years to come people should be able to look at these grades and think these are robust.”

The backlash over exam results adds to the criticism facing Johnson over his handling of the pandemic and on education, with ministers under fire over plans to get schools reopened full-time in September. That’s critical to the government’s broader plans for reopening the economy, because keeping students at home makes it more difficult for parents to go to work.

In his comments, Johnson also defended Education Secretary Gavin Williamson over the exam furore, saying “it was obviously going to be very difficult in the absence of formal proper exams.”

Triple Lock

Earlier, Williamson said students unhappy with their grades would be able to appeal, and would also be able to choose the highest score from either their calculated grade, the result of an exam sat later in the year, or the result of a “mock” or practice exam taken before the pandemic at the start of the year.

The plan, announced just hours before the results were released, was criticized by Labour and teaching unions. They said “mock” exams were poor indicators for likely performance in final tests, and that it would be unfair to make students sit exams many months into the the future.

“This is a complete fiasco,” Labour Party leader Keir Starmer told BBC News. “It smacks of incompetence.”

The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation said grades were downgraded because the estimates provided by teachers had been too optimistic, and would have led to unprecedented grade inflation had they stood.

‘Clear Injustices’

Yet critics pointed out that the biggest improvements in the number of top scores -- Grade A or above -- occurred in private schools, which may be because the moderation process ended up favoring pupils in smaller classes.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that while some form of standardization is necessary, the government’s approach “has created clear injustices.”

“We have received heartbreaking feedback from school leaders about grades being pulled down in a way that they feel to be utterly unfair and unfathomable,” he said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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