Test of authority

A-levels scandal: how the UK government is losing it.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

After a breathtaking week or so of balls-up and backbiting, the publication on 27 September 2002 of Mike Tomlinson’s report into the UK A-levels ‘grade-fixing’ scandal came as something of an anti-climax.

Tomlinson’s ‘independent inquiry’ was hastily set up on the orders of education secretary Estelle Morris, following allegations that the 2002 A-level results had been deliberately lowered in order to avoid accusations of ‘grade inflation’. His interim report confirmed that something fishy had indeed gone on, but found nobody in particular to blame (1).

Cue sighs of disappointment from the ‘heads must roll’ camp, followed by feverish attempts to unearth similar scandals within the rest of the education system – starting, logically enough, with AS levels.

It may be, as Barbara Amiel argues in the Daily Telegraph, that ‘Tomlinson’s report has one single object: to exonerate everybody. Everyone acted in the best faith. Everyone acted with the best of intentions. The ministry didn’t do anything. The examination boards didn’t do anything improper.’ (2) But – as Amiel’s article later indicates – the report’s refusal to pin the blame upon individuals only makes it a more damning indictment of the public examinations system as a whole.

The Tomlinson inquiry, in short, blamed this year’s grading fiasco on the fact that the A-level system had been changed without enough forethought, and that none of those charged with awarding this year’s students their qualifications had a clue what they were doing. ‘[I]t appears that the alleged problem with the grading process this summer has its roots in decisions made by the DfES and QCA about the structure of the AS and A-level awards, the assessment model and the preparation for the introduction of the new arrangements, particularly for A2’, states the report. (3)

Tomlinson also talks about the problem of ‘the lack of a common understanding of the standard associated with AS and A2 units’. (4) As I argued last week, by changing the methods of grading A-levels, all notion of a pre-existing standard went out of the window – meaning that the examining boards’ attempts to bring this year’s grades into line with those of previous years were inevitably cack-handed and arbitrary. (See Examining the scandal)

What the Tomlinson report brings out is the degree to which this arbitrary approach to grades and standards – and the fundamental confusion about what each of these means in terms of academic achievement – is now central to the government’s education policy.

‘At the root of this is a longstanding misunderstanding of the difference between maintaining a standard and the proportion of candidates meeting that standard and hence deserving to be awarded a GCE A level,’ states the report, rather sanguinely. ‘This misunderstanding appears to exist at almost all levels of the system, and in society at large.’ (5) If even the government in charge of politicising education doesn’t know what purpose should be served by educational qualifications, how is anyone else – not least, students and examiners – supposed to work it out?

In the grand scheme of educational things, the Tomlinson report does the government no favours. It exposes the incoherence and political expediency within today’s public examinations system- which exists to such a degree that nobody needed to be told to lower any grades.

As the Tomlinson report continually insists, those in charge perceived themselves to be under pressure to keep the proportion of high grades under control. His report concludes that ‘the actions of the boards during the grading exercise arose from the pressure they perceived that they were under from the QCA both to maintain the standard and achieve an outcome which was more or less in line with the results in 2001. These two demands are not compatible’ (6).

What we have here is a disturbing picture of crisis and confusion throughout the education system. For this, the government is clearly to blame. New Labour has run with the trend for politicising education, prioritising managerial measures of quality control and audit over academic priorities, and creating a culture within which it is simply expected that targets will be met.

Yet while the government is fully responsible for this general mess, the argument that particular ministers orchestrated the specific A-level debacle misses the point. The issue is not that the government has abused its authority by meddling directly with the exams system, but the way that it has devolved its authority to other bodies. This has created a situation where things can easily spiral out of control – and the government finds it increasingly difficult to rein them in.

‘My inquiry has been offered no evidence that ministers offered any guidance on the expected outcomes of this year’s A-level examinations’, states the Tomlinson report. ‘Nor was any present in the notes of meetings between Ministers and QCA officers. I therefore conclude that there was none.’ (7) This is the sense in which the report exonerates everybody.

But could anybody have seriously expected Mike Tomlinson to find letters, memos or emails hanging around that instructed other parties to ‘lower the grades’? Even if Estelle Morris had wanted to issue such an order, she would have had to be supremely stupid to have written it down.

Leaks, backbiting, lack of loyalty…these are as much a part of politics today as election campaigns and party conference. The lack of political loyalty within New Labour, coupled with the distance it feels between itself and the electorate, has led to a situation where nothing can be kept secret.

Witness the speed at which an email sent by spindoctor Jo Moore, describing 11 September as ‘a good day to bury bad news’, became seized by the media, made into public knowledge, and resulted in a scandal that eventually caused her dismissal. What were ultimately the actions of a savvy press officer were blown out of all proportion by a party unable to keep a lid even on its most prized form of political operation – successful spin.

At a time when politics hinges on personality, and ego counts for all, nobody within the New Labour regime can rest easy in the knowledge that their confidences will be kept. At a time when even the secret services are bound by the demands of openness and transparency, nobody dares put their name to any demand that might be construed as underhand. Even if that demand, in its own terms, is unexceptional.

Had Estelle Morris demanded that exam boards manipulate the marks to avoid accusations of grade inflation, why would that have been so much worse than the situation described by Tomlinson – where everybody just knew that this was the thing to do? There was a time when government ministers would have thought nothing of demanding that other parties dance to their tune – and that command would have been obeyed, in secret.

Today, government figures are held back not only by a fear of being rumbled, but a terror that they won’t be able to pull it off. Having devolved responsibility for problems to other bodies, they find that they cannot easily manipulate those bodies into carrying out their will.

Just look at the A-levels scandal, and the undignified row between Sir William Stubbs, chair of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), and education secretary Estelle Morris. No sooner had Morris announced an independent inquiry into the debacle than Stubbs attacked her for intervening too directly on the assumption that grade fixing had happened. This was an understandable tussle for authority. If the government devolves responsibility for the exam system on to another body, how can it then wade in and presume a problem that needs sorting out?

It got worse. The Tomlinson report was released, and the online news headlines announced Sir William Stubbs’ resignation. Within a matter of minutes, they were quoting Estelle Morris as saying that she sacked him first. With the ongoing row about whose responsibility the grade-fixing was, and the desperate attachment to the question of memos, what is really being played out here is the question of who has the clout.

Having passed the buck to all manner of other bodies, the government is experiencing an unravelling of authority, where it does not seem fully in control of what these bodies do. There was, after all, nothing contrived about the chaotic character of the A-level mess. The most sobering thought should be the extent to which it has shown the government’s inability to hold things together.

By devolving authority over, and responsibility for, the exams system to a body like the QCA, the government may well manage to insulate itself from specific blame for this particular mess. This, after all, was what Morris attempted to do with her previous crisis, over the vetting of schoolteachers.

When it emerged in late August 2002 that the Criminal Records Bureau, which the private company Capita is involved in running, had failed to vet all new schoolteachers for the suitability to work with children, Morris offloaded the blame by declaring herself a ‘very dissatisfied customer’ of Capita (8).

But what was the government doing, outsourcing responsibility for police checks to a third party? How can a government minister hope to get away with presenting herself as a victimised consumer of a private company – particularly when she has encouraged the private company to take on a job that should be done by the state? What seems like a handy way to pass the buck in the immediate term is ultimately corrosive of the government’s authority.

Estelle Morris has Sir William Stubbs’ head on a plate, and she can go reorganising the QCA, or whatever else she might do to set some distance between herself and the scandal. But the more the government can shift responsibility for problems on to other bodies, the more it will diminish its own authority to make things happen properly, and avoid the problems in the first place. It seems that two heads are not always better than one.

Read on:

Examining the scandal, by Jennie Bristow

Treating teachers like paedophiles, by Jennie Bristow

spiked-issue: Education

(1) The Tomlinson report

(2) Murder is too kind for the educational fraudsters, Daily Telegraph, 30 September 2002

(3) The Tomlinson report

(4) The Tomlinson report

(5) The Tomlinson report

(6) The Tomlinson report

(7) The Tomlinson report

(8) Problems with vetting system since spring, Morris admits, Guardian 5 September 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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