UK government U-turns on England school exam grades after uproar

LONDON (Reuters) - The British government bowed to public pressure over its school exam grading system, ditching an algorithm that downgraded the results awarded to students in England after their tests were cancelled due to COVID-19.

Students react outside the Department for Education as they hear the news of government U-turn on exam grades, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in London, Britain August 17, 2020. REUTERS/John Sibley

The government had faced days of criticism after the mathematical model used to assess grade predictions made by teachers lowered those grades for almost 40% of students taking their main school-leaving exams.

Students will now be awarded the grade that their teachers had predicted for them based on past performance, Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government said on Monday.

“I am sorry for the distress this has caused young people and their parents, but hope this announcement will now provide the certainty and reassurance they deserve,” Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said.

He promised last week there would be no U-turn.

A snap opinion poll by YouGov showed 75% of respondents thought the government had handled the situation badly, and 40% thought Williamson should resign. Some students have been protesting against the initial results.

Asked if he would resign, Williamson said: “I think what those youngsters wanted to see was action being taken.”

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The chaotic handling of the grades has been felt as far afield as Egypt and Pakistan as some schools there rely on British assessments to secure internationally recognised qualifications.

The algorithm will also be dropped for results for separate exams taken mostly by 15- and 16-year-old students.

The dispute has damaged Johnson’s core message to voters - that he wanted to get rid of barriers to achievement and help those from poorer backgrounds and areas fulfil their potential.

It marks a fresh embarrassment for a government which has changed course several times - including over meals vouchers for school children after a campaign led by soccer star Marcus Rashford.

Some students missed out on university places after they were downgraded several levels by the regulator’s initial model.

“These were problems that were staring the government in the face for months and the government has been slow and incompetent,” opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said.

Williamson said he was lifting a cap on the number of students that universities can accept, but it is unclear how universities will handle the unprecedented revision of grades.

The Russell Group of leading British universities said it needed urgent clarification on additional government support.

The central British government’s decision, which applies to England, mirrors those made by devolved administrations in Wales and Northern Ireland on Monday, and in Scotland last week.

Analysis of the algorithm showed it had resulted in “manifest injustice” of favouring students in fee-paying private schools, said Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies think-tank, writing for the Times.

Reporting by William James; Editing by William Schomberg and Mark Heinrich