August 7, 2023 - 10:00am

Exam grades are predicted to plummet this year, according to reports, after the Government indicated a wish to return to pre-pandemic levels. UK schools have seen rampant grade inflation since 2020, when formal exams were replaced by teacher assessment — a metric both more subjective and with obvious incentives to err on the side of generosity. 

Now Ofqual, the Government’s exam standards regulator, has told examiners to aim for approximately the proportion of top grades achieved in 2019. The result is expected to be 100,000 fewer A and A* grades.

This is hard luck for any young person sitting exams this year, who will be facing a higher bar for the same grades than those a mere 12 months older. But I also wonder what the tutelary effect will be for this academic cohort, of seeing the lie given so starkly to the supposed objectivity of the main measure of their academic success. How would it feel to see a purportedly detached evaluation mechanism, with significant implications for their future prospects, casually revealed as a political football — or even to experience the downgrade of their own life chances as a consequence? 

Of course, this isn’t to say that exam results are wholly political and arbitrary, or that there’s no relation at all between study and grade. But, in principle at least, if what they measured was genuinely a “standard” of attainment, one would expect results to fluctuate more over the years. More, the proportion of top grades would sometimes go down as well as up, without any need for prompting from the standards quango. 

But, as is well-documented, this doesn’t happen. Instead, nigh on everyone, from exam boards to teachers to students to education ministers themselves, has an interest in seeing the line go up — and so it does, except when the quango says it shouldn’t. 

This has given exam statistics a post-truth edge at least since I was at school, which is some time ago now. But I can’t imagine how dispiriting it would be as a school leaver now, to be confronted with the fact that an apparently objective metric with wide-ranging consequences for one’s individual life is significantly governed by the consequences of its contribution to an abstract measure called “exam data”. 

If that were me, I might be forgiven for taking this as yet another data point for my growing suspicion that there really is very little truth out there, and a great deal of narrative and politics. And if I were then to find those in power castigating younger generations’ predilection for re-infusing moral and political values into purportedly “objective” domains such as science (or indeed banking), on the grounds that doing so elevates politics over objectivity, I might be tempted to retort: you started it.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.