Almost as soon as A-level students in England started to receive their grades last Thursday it became clear that the system devised to produce fair results had in many cases done the opposite.
Reports of students having grades downgraded soon piled up, including bright pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds whose compelling personal stories quickly proved politically toxic.
In the face of mounting pressure the government performed a wholesale U-turn, but not before some – including backbench Tory MPs – questioned what political damage was being done to a party that had pledged to ‘level-up’ across the country and prides itself on an ethos of “hard work pays off”.
Senior Labour figures certainly believe it has cost the Conservatives.
On a visit to a London high school on Wednesday, shadow treasury minister Wes Streeting repeatedly claimed people were more angry about the exams episode than they were about Dominic Cummings’ well-documented trip to Durham during lockdown, citing an inbox “inundated” with emails.
Such assertions have been disputed by some Tory MPs, but one student present did say the handling of exam grades had influenced his political view.
Tarun Odedra, 18, said: “I’m going to be a politics student, I’ve read so much into the government. I actually voted for them in the election.
“It’s completely made me change my mind as to what I think of them. If I do pursue a career in politics in the future, it most definitely won’t be for the government that’s in power right now.”
It isn’t only the Conservative Party which has struggled with grading in lieu of exams; Labour, the SNP, the DUP, Sinn Fein and even the Liberal Democrats have faced similar issues where they govern in the UK.
But Labour, sensing a public backlash against the Westminster government, began a concentrated digital campaign.
In the past week the party had 2,700 Facebook adverts running – more I’m told than in the entire 2019 general election campaign.
They were designed to tap into anger the party says it picked up on social media among parents and young people, and were targeted specifically at marginal seats and former Labour strongholds that voted Tory last year – the so-called “former red wall”.
Rother Valley, in South Yorkshire, is a former mining community which voted Conservative in 2019.
Its MP, Alexander Stafford, did raise concerns with ministers about the original grading system after receiving emails from teachers, constituents and pupils; one of a number of Tory backbenchers to do so.
But he – like some of his colleagues – believes the government’s U-turn was enough to take the sting out of the issue.
He said: “What I’m hearing on the doorstep clearly, is that people understand the government has listened to people and wants to move on.
“People appreciate this is a once in a generation global pandemic. We are all learning as we go along. And you know, it’s great the government has listened to what people are saying, and no student is going to miss out after this.”
A snapshot of views in South Yorkshire suggests opinion is divided.
At the Vintage Booth, a tearoom in Maltby within the Rother Valley constituency, Mo Deeley, who voted Conservative in 2019 despite her Labour tradition, still has faith in the government.
“I think they’ve done as good as they could possibly do. Yeah, they’ve made mistakes, but as good as they possibly could do in the situation that we’re in. Nobody expected this in 2020, nobody.”
Her colleague, Claire Mallory, has a similar view, saying: “It’s very uncertain times and probably, you know the government has made mistakes.
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“But I think anybody who was in government would have made those mistakes because it was a whole brand new situation.”
But not far away at Dinnington High, a local school, Principal Rebecca Staples fears the whole episode may have dented the confidence of some of the most disadvantaged students.
She said: “We promised them that education would open them doors and give them choices for the future.
“And actually, there was a real risk all of that was going to be stripped away and to even have a week of that worry is too much, because that’s enough to shake people.
“I think for all students, they will felt really let down by this, it will feel to them like a broken promise.”
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