Stop demonising pupils over Gavin Williamson’s schools shambles – Jayne Dowle

I’M just a parent, so don’t expect me to know anything much about education.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson.

I have a daughter in Year 10 doing GCSEs and a son in the final months of a broadcast journalism college course.

I’m also a school governor at my daughter’s academy and taught journalism and public relations at a Yorkshire university for a decade. I’m a fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and still mentor young people today, preparing them for university or professional media careers.

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That said, I’m not one of those expert educationalists wheeled out on the news, so clearly I must bow to better judgement. Or not. I refuse to allow a bunch of privileged middle-class men – for sadly, it is mostly men – to cast aspirations on my children and all the children like them who basically just want to pass their exams.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson takes part in an online class during a visit to Sedgehill School in Lewisham, south east London, to see preparations for students returning to school.

I find the pontificating attitude of Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, with his illustrious pre-Westminster career as a fireplace salesman, curious at best and dangerous at worst.

Why is he demonising an entire generation of young people by threatening to ensure that there is no grade inflation when their GCSEs and A-Levels are marked by their teachers, then moderated externally this summer?

He clearly didn’t get the memo on the devastating toll that mental health has already taken on under-18s during the last 12 months of stop-start lockdowns and interrupted schooling.

After the debacle of last summer’s exam results and the botch-up over army-supervised mass school testing announced the day before schools broke up for Christmas, I hoped that Mr Williamson might have learned a lesson or two. Clearly not.

Boris Johnson has said education is now the country's number one policy challenge following Covid.

Instead, he reverts to threatening candidates and putting an already exhausted teaching profession under yet more pressure. Why not instead put faith in individual teachers, who clearly know their students better than anyone else, to deduce a fair and representative grade?

Let’s not forget, if Mr Williamson can manage to set up a proper system, these teacher-assessed grades will then be moderated. This system, however, will require concentration and co-operation, not the minister’s strongest qualities.

Believe me, moderation is nerve-wracking, especially for younger and less-experienced teachers. A representative sample of your own careful analysis is laid bare, thrown out to a second, even third, opinion. Get it wrong, be too generous – or not generous enough – and your entire credibility as a teacher is up for question and,ultimately, your department, school, college or university.

It’s certainly not in any teacher’s interest to be indulgent. Mr Williamson and his hard-line supporters should not be so quick to jump to conclusions either. Last year, teachers at my daughter’s school were too cautious; a significant proportion of their own predicted GCSE grades were uplifted by external assessment.

If there is one positive outcome we can take from this, it’s that the focus on final examinations, brought in by Williamson’s predecessor, Michael Gove, highlights the weakness of current GCSEs and A-Levels. The pandemic might prove once and for all that “teaching to the test” is not the most effective way to run modern public examinations.

With this as background, what’s the worst that could happen if teachers are encouraged to err on the side of positivity this summer? Aren’t our young people disadvantaged enough, set back in their plans and burdened by a lost year stuck in their bedrooms? Or must this generation be berated and made to bear the brunt of a pandemic entirely beyond their control for the rest of their lives?

This frankly disgraceful stance goes right to the heart of educational inequality. It runs entirely counter to the Government’s so-called levelling-up agenda, which seeks to tackle the yawning gaps in society and, indeed, calls into question the entire validity of this policy.

It reminds us that privileged children at independent schools and grammar schools will always do well, because they are expected to, and others – the majority – will always be treated with suspicion should they excel and rise above their station.

Given this, I call upon the Opposition and sensible Tory backbenchers to challenge Mr Williamson whenever he speaks on the matter of “grade inflation”.

This insidious attempt at social control must not be allowed to take hold. We owe it to our children to call it out now. And I, for one, intend to do so.

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