“Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into, Gavin!”

Laurel and Hardy's famous catchphrase is the only way to describe the Education Secretary's latest blunder.

Remember Laurel and Hardy? Their immortal moments of knockabout slapstick comedy were predictable but always hilarious. If they were set the task of carrying a ladder, you could be sure that Hardy (the fat one) would receive a sharp rap on the earhole, while the wiry Stan Laurel would generally duck at the crucial moment. Plunged once more into the mire of catastrophe, the hapless Oliver Hardy would utter his catchphrase, “Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into!”

Sorry. This piece is already becoming as predictable as a piano landing on Hardy’s foot. To be sure, the Covid pandemic might be accused of plunging the entire world into a fine mess, while a similar description might be applied to many aspects of this government’s handling of it. But for my mess of choice, I’ll stick to my erstwhile field, education.

A level and GCSE exams are off – or are they?

Two weeks ago, ministers were insisting that the summer’s public exams for sixteen and eighteen-year-olds would go ahead as usual. Now they’re cancelled. That goes for vocational qualifications, too. So said the Prime Minister on 4th January. So that’s clear, then.

Except it’s not clear any more. Not since Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced this morning (13th January) that he was asking Simon Rebus, boss of exams regulator Ofqual, to investigate (and consult on) whether some means could be contrived to “help” teachers – whose teacher-assessed grades (TAGs) will be the basis of the grades that youngsters receive – by achieving some kind of standardisation.  For example, smaller national tests could be devised, to be marked probably in schools, but maybe with some comparison/sharing between schools (the technical term is moderation) in order to verify standards.

One U-turn has been followed by another, or at least by a sharp left turn on a perilously icy road: where that particular spin will end up – on the road, in the ditch or in a catastrophic roll – remains to be seen.

Reaction in schools was one of universal fury. At a stroke Williamson has contrived to leave this year’s candidates embroiled in uncertainty, while their teachers have no idea what they are supposed to prepare their pupils for, let alone how or when to do it. How long will this consultation last before decisions are made? And what should teachers do in the meantime? It’s a fine mess.

The problem of fairness

Some claim that traditional written exams are the only fair way to assess candidates: the “level playing-field” argument is powerful.  But… up and down the country, children have missed huge amounts of teaching (and thus learning) over this and last school year. Trouble is, they’ve all missed different amounts, and have covered (or not) widely varying amounts of their exam syllabuses, with comparability of their individual experience and progress impossible to gauge or codify. So nothing could be contrived to make that playing-field level.

This was confirmed today: BBC Radio 4’s The World at One quoted Chief Regulator Simon Rebus warning that fairness cannot be achieved this year.

It didn’t have to be like this

This debacle was entirely avoidable. The fairness problem could have been mitigated.

Back in September I predicted that the summer’s exams would be cancelled: many other commentators either said the same, or at least demanded that Department for Education have a Plan B, in case they were.  Ministers refused even to consider the possibility.

Had some kind of framework of standardised tests related to different sections of syllabuses been devised back in the autumn, teachers might have had some data on their students’ progress that could even have been moderated, as I described above, in order to achieve some degree of standardisation.

In November many of us tried again. Same response. That’s the latest fine mess Williamson and his colleagues have got us into, dithering and delaying instead of making an early decision.

Today’s pathetic last-minute suggestion of bodging some kind of solution together is too little, far, far too late.

It’s not the first mess he’s got us into. I fear it won’t be the last. But, if Gavin were to ask me what I thought of his plan, I could only reply, “Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into!”


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