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Exam results were a 'no-win' problem, but the UK and Scottish governments have lost hard

The COVID-19 crisis has had impacts across every aspect of public life in the UK and abroad. Perhaps the most long-lasting impact has been on young people, who have been forced to miss a huge chunk of their education already while comprehensive online learning has been adopted sparsely - primarily by students from middle class backgrounds, or by schools and institutions with middle class catchment areas. 

Yet this education gap is not the most severe implication of the crisis for young people. Those young people due to take exams this year saw their exams cancelled, after already receiving and accepting conditional university offers based on the grades they were predicted to get. This has been particularly unfair on them. 

Government decided to award qualifications to students this year, regardless of the fact that they have not submitted any coursework or sat any exams. This was always going to be difficult, if not impossible, given the lack of information on what students may or may not be able to achieve. It was certainly the right decision to offer students a grade, and an opportunity to go to university - but deciding on what that grade would be was always going to be grossly unfair. 

Giving all students their predicted grades would be unfair. This is partly because students from middle class backgrounds are more likely to have got a higher predicted grade from teachers, regardless of what grades that get in exams, and partly because many will exceed their target grades in any given year. It would also cause serious strain on our universities, which are bound by conditional offers that would leave causes oversubscribed should everyone meet the conditions. 

However, in a situation where everyone knows that there is no fair solution, the government's approach has been particularly unfair. 280,000 ‘teacher assessed’ A-Level results were downgraded by an algorithm which was condemned by teachers, pupils and parents, and seems to have judged working class or inner city schools more harshly than private schools or middle class comprehensives. 

Countless students have missed their university places, without taking a test and without submitting coursework. They have done nothing wrong, yet have been told that they are not good enough based on a faceless algorithm. Where there are more people from working class or disadvantaged backgrounds impacted, and some institutions have made accommodations entirely based upon those factors, there are also countless middle class students who have been caught in the same trap. To the individual students and families, there is no difference or bias - only a shocking unfair and seemingly random process. A process decided upon by this government. 

They should have known better, given that the exact same thing happened in Scotland at the start of the month. The SNP's education minister is yet to resign, but it was clear from the start that this was a resigning matter. The Scottish government has since backtracked on the downgraded grades, under immense public pressure - but even now it is hard to tell just how bad this will be for Sturgeon and her ministers. It may have been too late for Gavin Williamson to change the algorithm, but it was not too late to otherwise change course. 

Many have noted the similarities between this scandal and Thatcher's 'poll tax'; unfairly impacting the poor for the sake of administrative simplicity and, in doing so in a seemingly brazen way, sparking a movement fair larger than those directly affected. Yet this is far bigger. This hasn't just affected one group, but instead every class of students across the country and is completely unfair in every case. This has taken away the futures of bright and ambitious students across the country, and those communities are unlikely to forget about this quickly. 

In response to the public outcry, the government yesterday offered a free appeals process for students who have seen their grades lowered. But this may be too late for students who have seen their places withdrawn, and is certainly not direct enough to appease the rightly angry. 

Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, yesterday accused the government of “grossly misleading” hopeful students after Schools Minister Nick Gibb promised this week that any downgrades “will be by just one grade.” Figures from Ofqual yesterday showed that around 24,000 grades were marked down by more than one mark by the standardisation model.

He also said that, “time is running out. We need action in days, not weeks. That also means an urgent technical review of the standardisation model ahead of GCSE results next week. We need to end this fiasco.”

And he is right. Perhaps this was a no-win situation for the Westminster of Holyrood governments, but they have lost hard - and other parties will capitalise on the unprecedented damage they have caused families across all class divides across our nations. 

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