Andy Burnham has revealed he is considering legal action against the government over the A-Level results system, as he accused ministers of the “single biggest act of levelling down this country has ever seen”.
His intervention came as Gavin Williamson insisted the government will not U-turn on the contentious algorithm used to standardise A-Level grades – despite intense pressure from cross-party MPs and frustrated students.
Results from exam regulator Ofqual showed earlier this week that almost 40 per cent of teachers’ assessed grades in England were marked down by the system that took into account institutions’ historic performances.
Separate data from the body also revealed private schools increased the proportion of students being awarded top grades (A*/A) by more than double that of comprehensive schools and sixth form colleges.
The regulator insisted there was no evidence of “systemic bias” in the system used, but speaking on Saturday the mayor of Greater Manchester said the standardisation process was “completely outrageous” and discriminated against students from more disadvantaged backgrounds.
Responding to government claims that the results awarded on Thursday were “robust”, he told BBC Breakfast: “This is the single biggest act of levelling down that this country has ever seen and if they think it is fair I’m afraid they are only demonstrating how out of touch they are with young people in some of our more deprived communities who have had their futures taken away from them.”
The former Labour MP insisted the situation required an “urgent intervention” and said he would be looking at challenging the algorithm used by the government in the courts for a potential breach of the Equalities Act.
“I believe this system that has been used is inherently discriminatory against young people who go to larger colleges and they tend to be in inner city, working-class areas,” he said.
Mr Burnham added: “One of our most successful inner-city sixth form colleges had 1,654 results downgraded and then we hear some private schools have had no downgrades at all.
“The system is straightforwardly discriminatory against larger institutions, against students who go to those sixth form colleges, or FE colleges – the weighting has been applied against those institutions and not against some of the smaller institutions.”
“For that reason I just think this cannot go unchallenged and I am considering taking legal action and looking at all options as to how we might do that. It just can’t be allowed to stand. The government’s remedy of saying the appeals can be free – am afraid that doesn’t help young people who have lost their university place.
“This is not just a few young people, this is thousands of young people in Greater Manchester. Here, we have a tradition of young people going to sixth form colleges. We have more sixth form colleges than other parts of the country so this has hit us very, very hard indeed and I cannot stand by and see thousands of lives ruined across Greater Manchester.”
Defending the system, the education secretary said reverting to teachers’ predicted grades would remove “checks and balances”, telling The Times ministers have decided to cover the cost of all appeals made by students
“Everything this government does is about levelling up,” he claimed. “It’s about giving people the very best opportunities. I’m incredibly proud to be the education secretary who has seen the largest rise of youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds progressing to university.”
Earlier this week, Boris Johnson said of the results: “Let’s be in no doubt about it, the exam results that we’ve got today are robust, they’re good, they’re dependable for employers, but I think that there’s a record number of candidates, of students, who are able to get their first choice course at the university of their choice.”
“Plus, there’s a record number of students, of pupils, from disadvantaged backgrounds who now as a result of these grades, will be able to go to university,” the prime minister added.
Ofqual added there was no evidence “bias” had been introduced into the moderation system set up following the cancellation of exams due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It said differences between the change in predicted and final results was “relatively similar” across all socio-economic groups, adding it was “difficult to draw firm conclusions” over the relationship between deprivation and grade adjustment.