When pupils are awarded grades this year, teachers have a chance to address the inequalities revealed by the pandemic

Last week a million teenagers finally had their fate confirmed: teachers in England will have complete freedom over how to grade GCSEs, A-levels and vocational exams, selecting evidence from coursework and classroom tests.

The dreaded algorithm has been ditched, but it is far from clear whether the system we have ended up with is any fairer than if we had stuck with exams. As they did last year, teachers will doubtless rise to the task, working all hours to make their judgments as fair and consistent as possible. But they find themselves in an impossible situation.

Exam regulators have told teachers that they can take the disruption caused by the pandemic into account, but can’t base grades on predictions of what children might have achieved had the pandemic not occurred. How thousands of teachers will interpret this ambiguous dictum is anyone’s guess.

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The government’s hope is that pupils will only be assessed on the content they have been taught, not on what they have missed during an academic year decimated by school closures. But how can you fairly assess the same topic when one pupil has received a few online lessons in cramped and crowded conditions unsuitable for study, while another has benefited from extra private tutoring and unlimited internet access?

Then there is the spectre of unconscious bias. Research reveals that teachers are, like all of us, susceptible to stereotypes. Poorer pupils tend to lose out, awarded lower marks than might otherwise be merited. This is one reason why we have exams. Few teachers have been trained in the science of assessment. Many school leaders were appalled to find that their grades last year unwittingly widened the achievement gap between poorer pupils and their more privileged peers.

Teachers may well face an onslaught of appeals from an army of tiger parents during a dedicated season for challenges to grades. Schools will have to share the evidence on which their grades were based. We know too well which pupils will be shoved to the back of the queue. Inflated grades will go disproportionately to privileged pupils.

But it will be long after this summer’s exam grade battles that we will comprehend the full consequences this pandemic has had on young people. I’ve undertaken research with the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics that reveals how the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated stark divides between education’s haves and have-nots. Private school pupils were twice as likely than state school pupils to benefit from full days of online lessons during school closures in the first lockdown. A quarter of pupils received no education at all. Some pupils have lost half a year’s learning.

The big fear for the Covid generation is permanent educational scarring. This occurs when students fail to pass a particular threshold in exam grades, closing off a future opportunity. The negative shock can reverberate across a lifetime. Pupils who miss out on basic GCSE passes, for example, might lose out on an apprenticeship, or fail to secure a sixth-form place. Students dropping an A-level grade might miss out on a treasured university slot. These sliding-door moments, often triggered by a single dropped mark, can be devastating: consigning teenagers to poorer employment and earnings prospects years into the future. For new university students who have missed large chunks of A-level subjects, there is the real risk of dropping out of degrees.

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Younger children can be scarred if they have missed out on parts of their curriculum that teach them key skills such as learning to read. They are less likely to progress in lessons once they return to school. Perhaps there is a case for offering pupils who have suffered significant learning loss the option of a repeated school year.

Education, of course, is about more than just academic progress; it’s about socialising with friends and classmates, sharing formative life experiences. Our surveys reveal rising levels of anxiety among young people who feel increasingly isolated. We estimate a 10% decline in future social mobility levels – a significant fall in the life prospects of children growing up in the pandemic compared with previous generations.

But maybe from all this upheaval there is an opportunity to create a fairer society. It’s high time we challenged the system of high-stakes testing that has distorted and narrowed the school curriculum, forcing teachers to teach to the test. Meanwhile, the narrow academic focus of the system is not working for all pupils, and we desperately need a credible vocational stream linking schools and the workplace.

The truth is that we are failing society’s fairness test. Far from acting as the great social leveller, enabling poorer children to overcome the circumstances they are born into, our education system has become the vehicle that allows advantage to be sustained from one generation to the next.