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Autumn leaves on a social distancing sign in Alexandra Palace, London. Photo: Jaime Ashworth, August 2020. More of my photography can now be seen at http://www.framingthemoment.gallery

The chaotic and careless handling of this summer’s exam results has illustrated (along with so much else), the rank inequality of our society and the almost comatose carelessness of our government. If you want expert and incisive analysis on this particular tragedy of errors, then you should follow either (but ideally both) @debrakidd or @teacherhead on Twitter and read their recent posts (they also have WordPress sites – see links below). The piece by Tom Sherrington in particular is a rare sighting on the internet: measured and thoughtful reconsideration of a view in light of developments. Debra Kidd offers a passionate analysis of why the disaster really wasn’t much different from business as usual, and why therefore it needs to change.

I don’t have the standing to criticise either of them, nor would I wish to. Their insights and advice have been inspiring and helpful in my journey as an educator. On this occasion, though, their writing and thinking has prompted a few thoughts in response.

Firstly, the piece by Tom Sherrington. As he makes frequent reference to in the piece, he assumed that common sense would prevail, or at least be applied at some point. This is an alluring thought but, since “They can’t be that stupid, can they?” has been close to infallible as a predictor of this government’s actions, perhaps slightly misplaced.

Sherrington’s uncharacteristic lapse is understandable: my brother’s drum practice this week may have knocked him off his game. (I’m not joking: see my Twitter for the exchange.) Also, as a highly intelligent and informed expert, his expectation that basic common sense would be applied was, well, reasonable. It turns out, of course, that not only was common sense and expertise apparently not sought, it wasn’t applied when literally delivered to those who needed to act on it. See the devastating critique of the OFQUAL algorithm by Dr Huy Duong, submitted in evidence to Parliament earlier this year, here.

Two meta-thoughts. First, when the historians of the future come to write the history of 2020, there may be a debate about the degree to which ministers listened to expert advice from SAGE. I would suggest that the decision to ignore Dr Duong’s analysis may be instructive in understanding the governing culture. This government, despite being presented with progressively more complex problems, is still “tired of experts” and only allows them a voice if they are docile. The disappearance from view of openly dissenting scientists from the daily press briefings if they ventured opinions in line with medical training, published law and common sense, is a chilling insight into the degree to which the government cannot brook dissent. For professors of medicine and public health committed to the public good, outward conformity may be an acceptable (if high) price to pay for ensuring they retain some purchase on events, but it is not a choice they should be asked to make.

Secondly, I wonder if a meta-understanding of our current plight is also bound up with the notion of common sense. It is certainly bound up with the sense that panic is always an inappropriate reaction and that everything is manageable. But, if quickly mastered, panic is a very useful indication that events are either imminently or actually out of control. Someone who doesn’t panic a little in the face of a global pandemic or blighting a generation’s life-chances perhaps has yet to fully get their arms around the problem. As Basil Fawlty responds when told by Polly not to panic: “What else is there to do?!”

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that Fawlty Towers is a model for responsible government. Governments led by chancers, sociopaths and inadequates (though the vogue in global leadership) rarely make good decisions. The chronically dissociated always think in terms of brutality, and those struggling to win approval care more about appearance than outcome.

In Debra Kidd’s case, my objection is slightly more technical. She suggests that a return to modular exams and AS levels would have averted this crisis. This is true, but the price of a cohort with (some) concrete results this year would be a cohort next year with nothing: after all, their AS levels would have to have been cancelled and calculated by algorithm – along with next year’s results, which are unlikely to escape the effects of COVID. The government response has been to multiply problems rather than solve them, but another “peacetime” solution would have had different problems. The basic problem with exams as currently constituted is that they are in general simply a final chance for students to prove spreadsheets wrong. When that final chance was removed, disaster was always a strong possibility.

More broadly, the consequences of AS levels were not all positive. I would suggest that the stress of three consecutive years of important assessments contributed materially to the sharp rise in mental health problems among British young people in the first fifteen years of this century. I am also not sure that increased testing is an answer to a failure of grading. But her central point about the negligence and cruelty of the current system is inarguable.

We need – as in so many areas – a more interesting and comprehensive rethink than endlessly switching between linear and modular qualifications. I’d like to see, in my own subject of History, a more actively collaborative externally marked coursework process. But everyone has a wishlist.

Whatever the repercussions of #alevels2020, I hope that both Tom Sherrington and Debra Kidd are among the experts who lead that process of change. Hopefully with a very different government, committed to finding sensible, informed answers to the problems that COVID exposes with such grim regularity.