Thursday briefing: Far from a level playing field, say teachers

·8-min read

Top story: ‘I feel like I’ve let them down’

Hello, Warren Murray taking you into the news this Thursday morning.

Head teachers have expressed despair over the downgraded A-level results due to be handed out to many of their pupils today, with pressure mounting on the government to institute a fairer system. School leaders yesterday received their first look at the A-levels recalculated by Ofqual, the exam regulator for England. “I’m pretty cut up. I feel like I’ve let them down,” said Mandeep Gill, the principal of Newham Sixth Form College, where 47% of submitted grades were cut. “I don’t know what else we could have done. We followed all the guidance. We did everything they said. We didn’t inflate grades.” Results will also be handed out in Northern Ireland – and in Wales, where the devolved government has created a safety net whereby students’ A-level grades cannot be lower than the AS-levels they received last year.

If you or someone you know receives bad A-level news today, here is what you can do. Ofqual, the regulator, has said it is “working urgently to operationalise” the new appeal route using mock exam grades, but further details would have to wait until next week. Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, condemned the last-minute announcement of the appeals process as a “complete fiasco”. “It was obvious that this was going to be difficult but it’s been weeks or months in the coming,” he said.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said he was “incredibly sorry” for the disruption to students’ education but defended the approach used to standardise results, telling the BBC: “We’ve got a system that is, I believe, the fairest that we can do. But let’s not forget that we’ve been in a global pandemic – we’ve been in a situation none of us would have expected to be in.”

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Coronavirus latest – About 3.4 million people in England, or 6% of the population, have already been infected with Covid-19, a figure far higher than previous estimates, a study suggests. The results come from the world’s largest home testing programme to find antibodies for the coronavirus, a study involving more than 100,000 volunteers and carried out by Imperial College London. The 3.4 million figure is many times higher than the tally of known cases for the entire UK. The programme suggests 13% of people living in London have Covid-19 antibodies, compared with less than 3% in the south-west of England. New Zealand’s hard won and much-vaunted claim to be Covid-free is falling apart, with a cluster in Auckland growing to 17 cases so far. Officials have conceded the virus may have been spreading undetected for weeks. England’s death toll has been revised down by 5,000 to account for people who had recovered from the virus before they died. It means the UK total has come down from 46,706 to 41,329. Stay up to date at our global live blog.

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Democrat pair hit the trail – In their first campaign appearance together, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris accused Donald Trump of leaving the US “in tatters” by failing to lead the country through the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout. The Democratic presidential and vice-presidential candidates appeared at a high school in Biden’s home town of Wilmington, Delaware.

Harris said: “America is crying out for leadership. Yet we have a president who cares more about himself than the people who elected him. A president who is making every challenge we face more difficult to solve.” The president’s campaign has attempted to attack Harris as “radical” and leftwing, though progressives in her own party view her as more moderate.

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Hottest spell in decades – The UK has had its longest stretch of temperatures exceeding 34C since 1961. Scorching heat was recorded in parts of southern England for the sixth day in a row. Warnings of thunderstorms and heavy rain are in place across the country – the Met Office has warned that flooding, damage to buildings, travel disruptions and power cuts are to be expected, as well as 30-40mm (1.1in to 1.6in) of rainfall in less than an hour in some places. A yellow thunderstorm warning covers much of England and Wales. Heavy downpours have already lashed large parts of Scotland and caused flooding. Three people died in a train derailment near Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire after a night of thunderstorms and torrential rainfall.

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Query over Cummings role in defence review – MPs are demanding Downing Street clarify Dominic Cummings’ role in the defence and foreign policy review, which is designed to set national security priorities for the next five years. Before taking up his job at Downing Street, Cummings accused the ministry of defence in a blogpost of “continuing to squander billions” on two aircraft carriers, arguing it would be better to invest in swarms of tiny drones. The review has been beset by accusations that it is being driven by Cummings, who has been granted a personal tour of sensitive sites including the SAS headquarters and Porton Down research labs.

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Read this before the net goes down – Bristol has been named Britain’s broadband “outage capital” with homes losing the internet for an average of 169 hours a year, equivalent to seven full days. The typical UK home that has outages is offline for 29 hours a year, according to a report by, the utility comparison site. It says almost 5 million consumers have had a broadband outage lasting more than three hours in the past year. The longest single outage was in Leeds, where it went on the blink for more than 54 hours, while London had the most instances of outages with at least seven over the past year.

Today in Focus podcast: Recession becoming jobs crisis

Economics writer Aditya Chakrabortty describes how the coronavirus crisis has sent Britain plunging into a record recession and what it means for the millions of people fearing for their jobs.

Lunchtime read: Asleep on the job?

Post-Covid office fit for the 21st century – or one man’s hellish vision of the future of work? Xu Weiping, a Chinese developer, has plans to setting up thousands of office pods in London where each person works in their own self-contained 3x3-metre space featuring a kettle, fridge, microwave, video screen, fold-down bed, and oh, a chair and desk. “We believe this is the first of its kind in the UK or even the whole world,” Xu said. “It will completely change the office environment.”


Pakistan’s pace attack has plenty of gas left in the tank, according to their bowling coach, Waqar Younis, with the tourists expected to keep changes to a minimum as they seek to level the Test series with England in Southampton this week. Atalanta’s Champions League dreams were ended by late goals from Marquinhos and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting as Paris Saint-Germain moved into a semi-final they looked unlikely to reach with 89 minutes gone. Players from three clubs will take a knee when the premiership resumes this week as part of the tournament’s new Rugby Against Racism campaign.

Sarina Wiegman is the Football Association’s preferred choice to succeed Phil Neville as the manager of England Women. Ronnie O’Sullivan missed a chance to turn up the heat on Mark Selby as humidity threatened to wreak havoc in the first session of their world championship semi-final at the Crucible in Sheffield. And sports including netball, basketball and badminton have called on the UK government to provide clarity and funding to help them stay afloat.


Asia’s stock markets have followed Wall Street higher, with investors returning to tech stocks, gold and selling dollars after steady virus figures and a surprising jump in US inflation boosted sentiment. The FTSE is trending lower by 35-40 points at time of writing, while the pound is worth $1.305 and €1.105.

The papers

The FT leads with the UK in recession: “Britain’s pandemic-hit economy suffers biggest slump in Europe”. And the Express? “Rishi: I will do what it takes to beat crisis”.

Elsewhere, coverage of A-levels tends to dominate, along with photos of the Scottish rail crash, which the Metro calls “Tragedy on the track”, giving it a full-page treatment. “You dunces!” – the Mail blasts the government for the exams situation. Others come to ministers’ aid, like the Telegraph: “Boosting exam grades ‘would harm Generation Covid for life’” – if and when a further climbdown comes from Gavin Williamson, there will be a certain amount of comparison with his insistent column in that paper today, which is headlined “Pupils can have faith in their A-level marks”.

The Guardian says “Ministers brace for backlash as teachers despair at A-level fiasco”. The Times has “School leavers given new hope after A-level chaos”, saying vice-chancellors are preparing to soften entry requirements. The i feels late to the story with “A-level turmoil over grading rule changes”. The Sun is just baffling, frankly, with “Sunta Claus” and a splash about Christmas crackers being already on sale for some reason.

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