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Exams are now part of a fantasy world

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I’d advise Britain’s beleaguered teachers to hide away until “the waves of fury about A-level and GCSE grades” subside, says Adrian Chiles in The Sun. This year students have been assessed by their schools, rather than external examiners, and they’re celebrating a record glut of A*s and As. Yet even without a rerun of last year’s algorithm-adjusted fiasco, controversy has reigned. Grade inflation has struck again, with poor teachers taking the flak this time for supposed soft marking. Top grades account for 44.8% of this year’s A-level results, up from 25% in 2019, the last time formal exams took place. And the proportion of top GCSE grades rose to 28.9% from 26.2% last year. The class of ’21 who proudly say they got “four A stars” will spend a lifetime hearing: “Oh right. Wasn’t that the year…” And imagine being a kid who hasn’t done well.

It’s all a lot of fuss about nothing, says Helena Gillespie in The Conversation. First, exam boards say they’re satisfied by teachers’ judiciousness. Second, exams will be back in 2022. Third, better grades mean more people going to university, “which is good for the economy”, especially when youth unemployment is at “worryingly high levels”. Places on medicine courses have been in particular demand: the government has had to add 9,000 for the coming academic year. That should help the overstretched NHS. “This, surely is a win-win situation?” We should be celebrating students who have done amazingly, despite “working in bedrooms and kitchens, isolated from their usual support networks”. The sooner we get back to normal, the better.

We are where we are not because of Covid – that “energetic little parasite” has merely been a useful facilitator, says Rod Liddle in The Sunday Times. For decades exams have been getting easier. I suspect the knowledge required for an O-level in 1970 would easily get you an A-level today. And so Ethan, “who believes that Boyle’s law refers to the livid things growing on his neck, will get his A* in physics”. Students need to be properly judged. They need to understand the benefits of hard work, appreciate the “sting of failure” and the “thrill of true achievement”. An overhaul of the marking system is expected to tackle the grading “free-for-all”, with alphabetical grades replaced by numbers. Good. If nothing is done, “A will stand for airhead”.

It’s not just exams that are “in a fantasy world”, says Douglas Murray in The Daily Telegraph. There’s a general “feeling of unreality in the air”. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has toured the airwaves celebrating “higher exam scores — and yet higher!”. After the unprecedented interruption of a generation’s education, the best scores ever have been achieved. That fits the official narrative: endless good news about growth and optimistic forecasts, despite an “unreal era of public spending” and eye-watering debt. No one wants to go back to work. We’re living in a weird bubble, pretending everything’s fine. To prick one part “is to prick it all”. So don’t lay into students. The whole country is “stuck in wonderland”.

Mind the attainment gap

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds suffered particularly badly from the “last-minute” grading decision, says the BBC’s Lewis Goodall. Everyone did better, but the inequality gap has widened. At private schools, 70.1% of A-level grades were A or A*, compared to 39.3% at comprehensives. Many students struggled with poor access to technology and spaces to learn. One exception is Brampton Manor Academy, an east London state school where 55 pupils got into Oxford or Cambridge – Eton managed only 48.