We Need To Talk About Gavin

20,000 students still having no grade at all after this summer’s cancelled exams. Many of whom are home educated.

A case of ministerial incompetence or deliberate neglect of a minority group? Either way, we need to talk about Gavin.

Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash


Just in case any of you have been absent from this world for the last 5 months, there has been a complete disaster on the UK exams front this year. And when I say ‘complete disaster’, I mean monumental f@#& up, the likes of which has not been seen since the 1956 Suez Crisis. So much so, in fact, that the Jeremy Vine program (Radio 2) which usually likes to focus on such things as the perils of walking down the street with a face mask on, should cyclists be shot if seen on a pavement?, obscure health conditions and allotments in Wales (it really is one of the highlights of my day!), made time in their jam-packed schedule (24th August 2020) to debate whether the ‘worst minister in history’ was Gavin Williamson (Secretary of State for Education) or Chris Grayling (amongst other positions, Secretary of State for Transport – the one who gave a ferry contract to a firm that didn’t have any ferries). Gavin Williamson has been so bad for education (don’t worry Mr Gove, we haven’t forgotten you) that even that most loyal of Conservative papers, The Daily Mail, rarely has a nice word to say about him (https://www.tomorrowspapers.co.uk/daily-mail-front-page-2020-08-19/). 

However, there is one place that seems to still hold a little candle for Mr Williamson, and that is at the Patchwork Foundation (https://twitter.com/UKPatchwork/status/1297126411405271040), where he has been nominated by the public for the 2020 MP of the Year Awards. Possibly he holds a warm place in the hearts of his constituents (South Staffordshire), perhaps the votes came from the privately educated students who this year found themselves disproportionately benefiting from the exams debacle and wanted to show their appreciation without coughing up the price of a box of After Eights (https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/factcheck-did-england-exam-system-favour-private-schools), or maybe it is an ironic statement made by the youth he allowed to be screwed over – my son says he’s not that ‘witty’. Who knows? And frankly, who cares? It’s a curious nomination by any measure, but I’m not looking for blood and recriminations, a resignation as minister might be a nice goodwill gesture, but really, all I want is a place for my son to sit the exams he has been, through no fault of his own, excluded from, as soon as possible.

So what is everyone’s favourite minister planning to do about this mess home educators and other external candidates find themselves in? No idea. But Nick Gibb (schools minister) said, when asked about the 20,000 students who weren’t part of school assessments, such as those home educating, re-taking etc.,  on the Today Programme (Radio 4), (https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000m0nr)… 

“it is difficult to have a calculated grade or a teacher assessed grade if they [private candidates] don’t have a connection with the school, and that is why we put on a special series of exams in the October/November for those young people and for other people that were not happy with the grade they were awarded.” 

“There isn’t normally an autumn season of exams but what we didn’t want is for young people to wait a whole year to take their exams next year, and that is why we came up with the independent regulator, a method of making sure they had their qualifications, and we tried everything we could to find a way to help those home-educated people who don’t have a connection with a school, to be able to take, to have a calculated grade, but it didn’t prove possible and therefore that is one of the reasons why we had a special autumn series of being able to take any of the subjects, GCSE or A-levels.”

That’s marvellous!!! Problem solved!! You take what already occurs for a number of exam boards, autumn sitting, present it as your own idea in response to your home-made balls-up, ignore all the other little considerations and hey presto! A workable solution!

So let’s have a look at those little considerations that are too small to be of note.

Firstly, where exactly are these external candidates supposed to sit these exams? We may have exams, but we still don’t have any exam centres willing to take us. 

Since all this exams stuff kicked off back in March, many schools, colleges and other exam centres have been shutting their doors to external candidates. Partly because it is all more bother than it is worth with predicted grades and the like, partly because they don’t know what will happen in the future so need to protect the interests of the students they already have and so aren’t taking on any more, but mostly because they are very concerned about maintaining the social bubbles that government policy has stipulated. Those exam centres that are still accepting external candidates (and they are not evenly distributed around the country) are, more often than not, the ones that rely on the income to keep the centres going. As a result, they are regularly the most expensive, which automatically excludes the financially struggling home educator from using them and, let’s face it, there are going to be increasing numbers of those as people continue to feel the financial effects of a global pandemic. 

Secondly, Nick Gibb made no mention of any possible local lockdowns. Perhaps he knows something about the trajectory of COVID-19 that the rest of us don’t, but to the average lay-person, local lockdowns in October and November look like a very real possibility. With that being the case, exam candidates will *again* be unable to sit exams in certain areas, with many external candidates *again* unable to get a predicted grade, calculated grade, exam centre grade or any other grade going. They will then once *again* have to remain without their qualifications until the next exam sittings.

Thirdly, autumn is too late for many students. Their university and college places have already gone. Perhaps they can go the following September, but if you have already had to go down an academic year for health reasons or whatever else, you will be too old for sixth form. However fantastic your grades are, they will not be able to take you in year 11 as an 18-year-old student, and you will be forced to sit any A-levels you wanted to do as a home-educated student. Again, this brings up the money thing. If you thought GCSEs were pricey, it gets even more expensive for A-levels. And then there is course work. Most external candidates can get through a decent number of GCSEs/IGCSEs (although by no means all) without doing any practicals or coursework, but the number of courses offering that goes down by quite a bit when you get to A-levels, with the number of exam centres willing to accept you goes down even further. 

And fourthly, who is paying for these 19 year olds who planned to go to university, but are now forced into yet another year of home education. Their child benefit will come to an end as they are technically above school age, but they still don’t have their qualifications and they will struggle getting a job in the current economic climate. Again, it is those that are on the lower rung of the financial ladder that are paying the price for this fiasco. If social mobility was hard before COVID, it’s all got a whole lot harder now. (So much for Boris and his “levelling up”, www.youtube.com/watch?v=3MBxnFAXT4w&feature=youtu.be .)

Now let’s consider the phrase, “we tried everything we could to find a way to help those home-educated people who don’t have a connection with a school to be able to take, to have a calculated grade.” Even in my most generous frame of mind, I’m screaming “ROLLOCKS!!!” (It is at moments like these I tend to channel my father.) They could have run exams in the middle of the summer when they were busy opening up pubs and making sure men got a hair cut and a beard trim. They could have tried some kind of online assessments. They could have offered to pick up the financial burden of having exams cancelled that many home educators have had to pay (you don’t get your admin fee back from the exam centre even if the exams are cancelled) and ensured a centre for as soon as it was safe to have exams. They could have found a few distance-learning providers to work with home-educated students over the summer and through that got them a centre assessed grade (CAG). There are so many options, if you just spend even one second thinking about it. Did they try ‘everything’? No, because they didn’t try *anything*. They had forgotten we even existed, and if it wasn’t for increasing awareness of our current situation being brought to the fore by mainstream media, we still would be. 

But now that they have remembered we exist, have they helped those ‘home-educated people who don’t have a connection with a school’? Not even a tiny bit. Not one thing has changed, not one solution has been offered. We are still stuck up that proverbial creek without a proverbial paddle.

When nothing is done to protect some of the most vulnerable in our society, and many home-educated students are just that – victims of bullying, learning difficulties, living with mental and physical health problems, bereavements, exclusions, off-rolled and any other reason you care to give as to why many come out of the school system – one struggles not to come to the conclusion that the way this situation has been managed is a personal attack on them, a further nail in the coffin that contains the dream of equality, meritocracy and a truly developed society.

But we are in unprecedented times. No one could have predicted this situation… 

Meet Jessica Johnson, an 18-year-old student who won the 2019 Orwell youth prize for her dystopian short story about an algorithm deciding school grades according to social class. “I based it on the educational inequality I already saw. I just exaggerated that inequality and added the algorithm. I really didn’t think it would come true as quickly as it did.” (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/aug/18/ashton-a-level-student-predicted-results-fiasco-in-prize-winning-story-jessica-johnson-ashton?utm_term=7615af2257e74f653d01a986d4e61d51&utm_campaign=GuardianTodayUK&utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&CMP=GTUK_email) If even 18-year olds who are yet to leave the confines of the school gates can see that something isn’t right in our education system, why can’t Williamson and Gibb?

All UK parents are legally obliged to “ensure that [their children] receives efficient full-time education suitable to his (or her) age, ability and aptitude and any special educational needs he may have either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.’ (Section 7 of the Education Act 1996). Home educators clearly take the ‘otherwise’ approach. 

Some people will regularly tell you that ‘efficient’ and ‘suitable’ means doing exactly the same as school would, but case law (Harrison & Harrison v Stevenson, 1981), which incidentally carries a lot more weight than ‘some people’, has defined ‘efficient’ as being that which ‘achieves that which it sets out to achieve’, and ‘suitable’ as one that ‘primarily equips a child for life within the community of which the child is a member, rather than the way of life as a country as a whole, provided it does not foreclose the child later on in life being able to adopt some other form of life if he or she wants.’

As home educators, we take this very seriously. We want more than anything else for our children to go on and have all the opportunities in life that everyone else does, and although it is quite possible to make a very good life for yourself in the UK with no qualifications, the majority of our educational and employment systems expect the minimum of a GCSE in maths and English. Without these many, many doors will remain closed to you.

For those home educators whose education was calculated and executed with public examinations in mind, we have been deliberately hampered from achieving our legal obligation of either providing an ‘efficient’ or a ‘suitable’ education for our children. It should therefore fall on the state to ensure that all home-educated students have access to examination centres, where home educators are not prohibited from using them due to unreasonable distance from home or excessive pricing.

But we aren’t going to get this without a fight. So we are fighting.

Home educators are talking to the media, politicians and anyone else who will (or should) listen, reports have been pulled together about the impact of the cancelled exams on home educators, petitions are waiting to be approved by Parliament before they can go live, people are phoning around trying to persuade exam centres to take external candidates, parents are negotiating with colleges to get their children places despite not having all the required qualifications, and everyone is counting up their pennies trying to scrape together enough for what they know is going to be a very expensive academic year if you’re are a home educator hoping to get a qualification. But is it enough? I don’t know…

But when it’s your children’s future, what else are you going to do except keep fighting? 

Who to write to: 

If you are currently in an exam pickle:

Your Local Education Authority: http://schoolswebdirectory.co.uk/localauthorities.php

For Cambridgeshire: email: ElectiveHome.Education@cambridgeshire.gov.uk
They often can’t do anything, but it is important that as many people of influence know our situation as possible. Obviously, you may not be so keen to contact them if you wish to remain unknown to the LEA.

Even if you have no child intending to sitting exams this coming year, you can still help by contacting your MP and making them aware of the situation we are currently facing: https://members.parliament.uk/FindYourMP 

And, of course, you can also get in touch with Gavin Williamson, in his capacity as the Minister for Education, through the Department for Education, https://form.education.gov.uk/en/AchieveForms/?form_uri=sandbox-publish://AF-Process-f1453496-7d8a-463f-9f33-1da2ac47ed76/AF-Stage-1e64d4cc-25fb-499a-a8d7-74e98203ac00/definition.json&redirectlink=%2Fen&cancelRedirectLink=%2Fen, and Kate Green, the Shadow Minister for Education, https://members.parliament.uk/member/4120/contact.

Further information on sitting exams and finding exam centres as an external candidate:



[A little note about the price of sitting a GCSE/IGCSE as an external candidate: A GCSEs/IGCSE’s at cost is roughly between £50-65 a subject, this goes to the exam board and is the fee for sitting the exam. Most centres also charge a one-off admin fee that is usually around £30, but they can go well over £100, particularly if the admin fee is charged per subject. On top of this you can also be charged invigilation fees. This varies wildly from exam centre to exam centre. Most charge nothing for them, but others make a big profit here. You can also be expected to pay more if you are doing a modern language that requires an aural test, or if you require special access arrangements, e.g. a room for students that need to sit exams on their own.The average total price for sitting a GCSE/IGCSE as an external candidate in the UK is around £100-150 per subject, but it can be over £300 a subject. This is one of the main reasons why traditionally home educators have fewer GCSEs than schooled children, they are priced out of gaining basic qualifications. A-levels cost even more and you regularly have to travel further to find a centre that will be willing to accept you. The largest centre open to external candidates in Cambridge, that also happens to be a very popular sixth form college, currently charges £250 a GCSE/IGCSE subject (up from £150 three years ago when there was more competition in the market with Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies also operating as a centre for external candidates), however, they too have closed their doors to external candidates for this academic year coming.] 

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