The A Level Results scandal – a political disaster

Whatever you may think of previous education secretaries, I suspect that even the most controversial (Ken Baker, Ken Clarke, David Blunkett or even Michael Gove) would not have made such a horrendous hash of exam grades during the pandemic.

First of all, they would not have come out and said that exam grades based on teacher predictions would lead to grade inflation and people being promoted above their level of competence. They would have recognised that banana skin immediately. In the middle of a mess like this, you don’t draw attention to people’s perception that you have presided over one major omni-shambles and that people may have different views to you on your level of competency and suitability for office.

What I suspect they would have done, as soon as the Scottish results came out would have been to check again the English situation. They would have come out quickly and said that this was a disgrace, that we don’t play games with our children’s future and that this highlighted the failings of the system and “the blob.” They would have promised reform and insisted that it would be better to pause the results in order to make sure that the correct grades were given.

This would have presented them as on the side of the young people and their parents. It would have  shown them to be crusading against an impersonal system and for good measure encouraged favourable comparisons against the SNP at a time of real danger for the Union.

Yet by allowing the results to go out then sending a confusing signal about a possible triple lock and finally by putting the ball back into the hands of each individual young person through an appeal process Gavin Williamson has managed to dig an even bigger hole for himself. This looks potentially like one of those cut through political moments where a party’s target voters are directly affected and sit up and take notice.  A lot can be forgiven of governments but messing with children’s education is not usually one of those things. So, this situation has the potential to have the same kind of effect as the double mess up of the 2017 General Election campaign where the  Conservatives managed to both fail to counter Labour’s retail offer on student fees whilst simultaneously offending their voter base with their social care policy.

The only thing that might let them off the hook is if the opposition respond in a feeble managerial manner focusing on the appeals process. Again, imagine what a Tony Blair, David Cameron or even a Jeremy Corbyn would have said and done. They would have come out, declared the results illegitimate, told the students that they were on their side, urged schools to publish their own results, call on universities and employers to recognise these alternative results instead and promised that they would legally formalise this recognition once in power.

So, why did the Government get into this situation and what can we learn generally.  I think that a lot of this goes with the age of a government. Young governments tend to be crusading and reforming, they attack the status quo and promise to change the system. Old governments find it harder to attack a status quo they have presided over and fall into a management approach, defending the establishment. There is also the risk that they become increasingly out of touch, reliant on civil servants and so make mistakes like not realising that mock results simply will not function as a useful predictor of grades.  They tend to be bogged down in admin and so miss having someone around to say “Nope, that’s just stupid, that idea won’t fly.”

Well, although I am writing this partly out of annoyance at this mess, partly out a general interest in politics, I am also thinking about lessons that the church and church leaders can learn.  I think they are obvious.

  1. We must live in and engage with our communities. We must not lose touch with the people we seek to love, care for, pastor or witness to.
  2. We shouldn’t lose a passionate concern to see injustice corrected.
  3. We should keep our solutions simple and communicate clearly
  4. It is better to delay and get it right then to try and go ahead with something and sort the mess out as we go along.
  5. We need to have people to watch out and challenge our ideas and plans. They may sound good in our own heads but we need people to tell us “that just isn’t going to fly.”

One final thing. In the end all politicians will fail and let you down.  As one former politician once said “all political careers end in failure.”  We have had 10 years of Conservative rule, before that we had 13 years of New Labour and before that 18 years under Thatcher and Major. Even governments that look permanent eventually come to an end. All bring their strengths and all their failings.

We don’t know when this current Government will end and a new one start.  However, the Bible points us to the God who is the eternal king and who remains secure and trust worthy through all the changes of the political guard. 

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