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British education minister apologizes over A-level exams flap

In a U-turn after days of criticism, the British government on Monday scrapped an exam-grading policy that was set to deprive thousands of 18-year-old school-leavers — especially the more disadvantaged — of places at universities.

Roger Taylor, head of the exam regulator Ofqual, said the use of an algorithm to predict the results of exams that were cancelled by the coronavirus pandemic had caused “real anguish and damaged public confidence.”

The U-turn is an embarrassment for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, but had come to appear inevitable as criticism of the policy spread, even within the ranks of the governing Conservative Party.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson on Monday acknowledged that “the process of allocating grades has resulted in more significant inconsistencies than can be resolved through an appeals process.”

“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,” he said.

Britain’s Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is seen on Downing Street in 2019. Williamson on Monday acknowledged the ‘distress’ caused to students and parents. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

Johnson, who is on vacation, chaired a call on the crisis Monday with Williamson and senior officials.

Williamson had previously insisted that there would be “no U-turn,” although he said students who had been downgraded could appeal or retake the exams.

Universities in the U.K. offer final-year high school students places based on grades predicted by their teachers. Admission is contingent on the results of final exams, known as A Levels.

Student protests

This year, with schools largely shut since March and no exams, education authorities in England ran the predicted grades through an algorithm, intended to standardize results, that compared them with schools’ past performance. That meant high-achieving students at under-performing schools, many in deprived areas, saw their marks downgraded, while students at above-average schools kept their predicted grades.

Hundreds of students have held protests, calling the results an injustice, and lawmakers were inundated with complaints from angry parents.

Kay Mountfield, head teacher at a school in Marlow, west of London, said 85 per cent of her students had received lower-than-predicted grades.

“Seventy of my students have not had their first choice of university,” she said. “Normally that would be about five, or 10 maybe, students.”

The reversal means students in England will receive the grades estimated by their teachers, unless the ones generated by the algorithm are higher. Education authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have made similar moves.

The same policy will apply to GCSEs, the exams taken by 16-year-old students. Those results are due on Thursday.

In Scotland, authorities quickly reversed course after a similar fiasco last week, saying students would get their predicted grades. That increased pressure on Johnson to do the same for England.

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