British government facing mounting criticism in exam row

A level students hold placards as they protest outside the Department for Education, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in London, Britain

The British government was criticised by lawmakers in its own party on Sunday after a mounting row over English exam grades awarded during the pandemic intensified, in the latest hit to its reputation.

With a nationwide lockdown forcing exams to be cancelled, the government used an algorithm to assess grade predictions that had been made by teachers, and lowered those grades for almost 40% of students taking their main school-leaving exam.

The process led to thousands of students losing places at top universities. To compound the issue for the government, results shows that grades were less likely to be lowered for those students who attended fee-paying private schools.

On Saturday night the exams regulator published guidance on the appeals process, only to pull it hours later because it needed further review.

Robert Halfon, chairman of the cross-party education select committee in parliament and a lawmaker in Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party, described the situation as farcical.

“It sows confusion among pupils, head teachers and school teachers and it’s the last thing we need at this time,” he told the BBC.

Conservative lawmaker Robert Syms said the government needed to address the issue with a fair appeals process “or risk (Conservative) Tory MPs going on warpath”.

Johnson’s government has been criticised for its handling of the pandemic, with the country recording the highest death toll in Europe, the most severe economic contraction of any major economy so far and multiple occasions where it has been slow to respond to events.

The opposition Labour Party said the incompetence was unacceptable.

While France published the methodology for how it would award grades months in advance of results day, Britain announced changes to the process the day before they were released. The issue is likely to surface again this week when grades for 16-year-old students are released on Thursday.

The government has said pupils would not have to pay to appeal grades and said most students will have received the correct results. Ofqual said some of the predicted grades given by teachers were “implausibly high”.

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