The Problem With the U-Turn

Image Description: Martha Storey along with others at the Leeds Exams Justice Protest

Martha Storey, OULC Secretary, Women*s Officer, and organiser of the Leeds Exams Justice Protest, critiques the governments eventual U-Turn on exam grades.


Given the global pandemic going on around them, the Class of 2020 were always going to leave school into exceptional times. So when it was announced that they weren’t to sit their A-Level exam results, this seemed to make sense. There was danger of them missing much of their last school year, and it seems ludicrous to suggest that students sit an exam in the middle of a pandemic. The solution was to ask teachers to assign Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) for each subject, and then moderate them to ensure that teachers were not unfairly bolstering their student’s achievements. This seemed relatively uncontroversial at the time – those with fears of “grade-inflation” were assured by the moderating system, while pupils got the grades their teachers believed they deserved (despite the issue of the teachers’ biases swaying the results.)

But, of course, not all went as planned. Results day arrived with the news that a controversial algorithm had been used to moderate the CAGs. This led to 39% of results being downgraded, and, predictably, many unhappy students. The problems ran deeper than this, however – the algorithm had magnified existing inequalities within the education system. Predictably, private schools saw the biggest increase in A grades out of all school types (a 4.7% increase compared to a 0.3% increase for state sixth forms and colleges). Southern schools also enjoyed a larger percentage increase in A grades when compared with their Northern counterparts (schools from the North East, North West, and Yorkshire and the Humber regions). Perhaps most worryingly, students with a low socioeconomic status saw the greatest decrease from their CAGs to their awarded grade.


It is important to remember how these results have been calculated before jumping to conclusions. Algorithms merely perform what instructions have been fed to them, so anything that is a fault of the algorithm is arguably a result of poor instructions being fed into it. (see Jeni Tennison, 2020 at for a good explanation of what the algorithm does) In short, the instructions given to the algorithm contained loopholes and snags that made it easier for students who already enjoyed educational privileges to get better results. For starters, the algorithm heavily leans on a school’s grade history when calculating results, which meant that stories of high achieving students from underperforming state schools dominated results day. Past data dominated the algorithm’s grading mechanism, so exam centres where exam history was lacking (those with five or less students taking a subject in the last three years) were just awarded their CAGs, which naturally benefits smaller exam centres – likely to be fee-paying or independent schools. When tested on the 2019 cohort’s exam results, the algorithm was found to be only 40% accurate.

Predicting a school year’s exam results was never going to be easy, however the manner in which Williamson ploughed on, pushing for an obviously flawed algorithm, was astonishing. With a prominent lack of information about their moderating system right up until results, the chaos in the following few days was not entirely surprising. Student protests took place in London, Liverpool, Canterbury, and Newcastle, all calling on the government to “make the U-Turn” and award students their CAGs instead of the algorithm predicted grades. For much of this time, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson refused to make the U-Turn, suggesting that, once he did so, it was largely because of the mounting public pressure on him to do so.


This U-Turn should be celebrated as a testament to the power that young people can have to influence politics. Along with a friend from school, I organised the Leeds Exams Justice Protest, scheduled for Tuesday the 18th August. The days leading up to the protest were spent speaking to journalists and Teachers Union Representatives, trying to get hold of a megaphone while keeping up with the surprising amount of media attention that our protest had attracted. The purpose of our protest was initially to try to help force a U-Turn, but also to show discontent with the crude way in which the exam results had been handled. With 5 months to sort an appropriate solution, students were left with an inadequate set of grades that only magnified existing problems within the education system.

Upon hearing about the U-Turn, my happiness was somewhat dampened by the stress of deciding what to do about our protest. Our protest wasn’t solely about making the U-Turn, so we eventually decided to hold it anyway, accepting that there was bound to be a smaller turn out. The U-Turn wasn’t perfect; BTec students were not covered, and many universities were now forced to reject students who had the correct grades, simply because they hadn’t the capacity to deal with the influx of students whose grades had been altered. 

The U-Turn wasn’t just about high-achievers who had missed out on universities like Oxford, but the press attention was disproportionately focused on them.  I was asked lots about Oxford – what grades I needed to get in, and, oddly, how well I had done in my first year mock prelims – much more than my friend James who also organised the protest was not. (He is studying History at Bristol – hardly a low achiever.) The attention on high achievers was unsurprising, but had meant that after the U-Turn, no one seemed to care that BTec students were exempt. Since then, the BTec results were pulled on the eve of results day, an outrageous decision that shows the government’s, and the media’s, lack of concern for vocational subjects.

The delayed decision to award CAGs also impacted many who now had the grades for their chosen university. Many universities had closed Clearing by this point, and lots of students I spoke to had been through clearing, and signed accommodation contracts with unis other than their first choice. Universities were telling students that they were full, and students would have to defer a year if they wanted to come. Naturally, this postpones much of the problem, leading to less university places for next year’s school leavers. It is also dangerous for social mobility – as child benefits end when a child leaves post-16 education, many low income families won’t be able to fund a gap year without their child having a job. However, jobs are few and far between at the moment, a trend that is set to worsen as we move out of the pandemic.


Our protest also called on Gavin Williamson to resign as Education Secretary, a sentiment echoed by 40% of the public (Alain Tolhurst, Politics Home, 2020). Warned by the Department of Education director-general as early as July about the inequality that the algorithm would amplify, Williamson has no excuse for not foreseeing the shambles of the last week. There has been an utter disregard for the impact of these results, and a lack of determination to find a better way of allocating grades. Professor Sally Holland, Children’s Commissioner for Wales, Bruce Adamson, Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, Anne Longfield OBE, Children’s Commissioner for England, and Koulla Yiasouma, Northern Ireland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People wrote a letter to Universities UK, detailing how “rights to an education and to fair and equal treatment have been severely compromised this year,” and it seems mistaken to allow Williamson to continue in his role when he was clearly complicit in this compromise. So far in this pandemic, the government has shown a distinct lack of accountability for their actions. Education should not fall into a series of political mishaps to be forgotten about; given the new issues thrown up by the U-Turn, the problem is clearly not over. We can’t allow this year’s results catastrophe to be glossed over – education is worth more than political tit-for-tat, and we must treat it as such.

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