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In the news 14 August 2020

14 August 2020

A-level chaos and confusion as minister accused of making up policy on the hoof

A-level results day was one of chaos and confusion, rather than celebration yesterday. Despite witnessing a week of problems in Scotland (see below) where marks were downgraded under a controversial system of algorithms and schools' past performance, hapless education secretary Gavin Williamson refused to try and tackle the problem until the eleventh hour.

On Tuesday night, he introduced a confusing "triple lock" where students could accept the mark they were awarded, resit their exams or possibly use a result from their mocks (if they had sat them - but they would still need the school to appeal for them). Then on results day he started to suggest there might be varied starts to the term to aid students forced to appeal.

Speaking to the Metro, the Guardian and the Telegraph UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'The government needs to accept it has got this badly wrong, stop trying to pull a rabbit out of the hat and keep things simple by using teacher predictions — as happened in Scotland.'

Almost four out of ten results were downgraded. Top grades at private schools rose by almost 5%, whereas students at state sixth forms and further education colleges saw a rise of just 0.3%. Colleges have already complained that many thousands of students may have missed out on their grades because of a "systemic bias" and called for an urgent review.

Prior to the results being released Jo spoke to Sky News, BBC News and BBC Radio 5 Live to highlight how the results system is having the greatest impact on the least affluent; who have already been hit hardest by the pandemic.

Last night Jo hosted an online rally with National Union of Students (NUS) president Larissa Kennedy and Unison assistant general secretary Roger McKenzie to discuss the results fiasco, safety concerns about a return to campus and the impact of job cuts as part of Fund the Future.

UCU and NUS have issued a joint statement of solidarity with all those affected. NUS has also launched a petition demanding the Westminster government give all students their teacher assessed grades, introduce a fair and free appeals process, and commit to an overhaul of the system of exams and grading.


Scottish apology and U-turn after exam results fiasco

Yesterday's chaos was particularly hard for students and staff to bear as it came less than 48 hours after the Scottish government had belatedly recognised the failings of the system awarding grades. Following representations from students, protests and a mauling by MSPs and the media, deputy first minister John Swinney made a startling U-turn and said no results would be downgraded, and students could use the marks predicted for them by teachers.

Last week 124,000 exams were downgraded in Scotland and it was the most disadvantaged students who suffered the most. On average, pass rates for pupils in deprived areas went down by 15.2% compared to just 6.9% in affluent areas.

UCU welcomed the U-turn and Jo Grady told the Guardian that: 'Allowing algorithms to downgrade marks and hold students back was wrong. Many students' life chances could still be damaged because of a clearly faulty system.'

In the Independent she said: 'The rest of the UK must now ensure that no student misses out because of a flawed system of awarding marks.'

Speaking to the Scotsman, UCU's Scotland official Mary Senior said: 'This belated U-turn is welcome news for the thousands of Scottish students who could have missed out due to the farce around the results last week.'


School, college and university heads back reform of university admissions

Ahead the A-levels fiasco, a report on Tuesday showed how school, college and university heads wanted to explore a new and better system for university applications. The report by the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) and UCU found that more than four in five of those who responded wanted to look at a system where students apply to university after they receive their results.

UCU said students applying after their results would be fairer, eradicate the need for controversial unconditional offers and bring the whole of the UK into line with the rest of the world .

Speaking to ITV News, Jo Grady said: 'Allowing students to apply after they receive their results would help level the playing field for disadvantaged students, remove the problems associated with unconditional offers and end the chaotic clearing scramble.'

Speaking to Times Higher Education, NEON director Graeme Atherton said: 'It is essential that we now develop a system that unites schools, colleges and universities and places the needs of students first. The report presents evidence showing educational leaders support a new system that enables rather than prevents students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education.'

In Wonkhe, Graeme outlined why the current admissions system is not fit for purpose.


Importance of universities to the local economy

On Monday, UCU's head of policy and campaigns Matt Waddup spoke to BBC Radio 4's consumer programme You and Yours(22:50) about the importance of universities to local economies.

UCU research found that UK universities typically support up to one additional job in the local economy for every person they employ, and are often among the largest local employers, according to a University and College Union report highlighting institutions' "huge impact" on local economies.

Matt also pointed to a UCU-commissioned poll that showed how voters in swing "university seats" fear damage to their local economy if student numbers drop. It also found that a third of workers in university towns believe their job depends on their local university.


Hull College gets union warning over job cut plans

On Wednesday BBC News said UCU had warned Hull College over plans to axe jobs. The college announced plans to cut 57 posts, which the union said would have serious implications for students.

Rubbishing comments from the college that the changes would not have a major impact, UCU regional official Julie Kelley said: 'These plans will have serious implications for students' education. Axing specialist staff that support students with learning disabilities, for example, is going to have a massive impact and the college is misleading people if it tries to suggest otherwise.'

Urging the college to work with UCU, Julie said bosses had to reconsider job losses in the middle of a pandemic.

Last updated: 14 August 2020