Exam grading debacles in Scotland and today’s A-level results have provoked a backlash amongst students, teachers and parents. The current system is failing young people, depriving them of their future. We need to fight for change.
by Chris Herriot, De Montfort University UCU
The school results fiasco – first with the Scottish Highers, and now with A-level results – has exposed the weaknesses of an education system based on exams.
Why would anyone want to base qualifications around short-term memory rather than measuring deep learning? You might almost think that the examination authorities want people to fail.
Of course, teachers will predict higher result expectations from their pupils than they subsequently achieve. Their assessments are based on coursework, which is relatively free of the extreme stress and intensity of a timed examination.
Even mock exams are less stressful, because students know they are simply that: a mock exam; a practice; not “the real thing”.
The severe limits of this system have been revealed by a pair of exam results debacles over the past couple of weeks.
First on 4 August came the announcement of results in Scotland. This rightly provoked a furore amongst students, with tens of thousands finding that they had been awarded grades far below their predictions.
Most shockingly, it was revealed that students from more deprived areas were affected to a greater extent by the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s (SQA) grading system, which has been described as a “classist marking scheme”.
The SQA system involves ‘moderating’ the predicted results by gauging them against the historical performance of each school. This meant that 125,000 – mostly working-class – students had their grades reduced.
Some students have rightly claimed that this is discriminatory and unfair, killing the idea that if you work hard enough you can overcome adverse circumstances. It has shattered the illusion that we live in a meritocracy.
The scandal led to a backlash of protests across Scotland, forcing the SNP government to U-turn.
Nicola Sturgeon has subsequently issued an apology. Scottish Education Secretary John Swinney, meanwhile, as promised that thousands of results will be upgraded – mainly in a cynical attempt to save himself from a vote of no confidence in Holyrood.
But, the U-turn by the Scottish government – under pressure from furious students, parents and teachers – hasn’t been enacted quickly enough to hide the blatant truth that the education system is stacked against working-class students.
Today’s A-level results have only confirmed this conclusion. Using a similar system to the SQA, students in England found out today that nearly 40% of their A-level grades had been downgraded from teachers’ predictions. In Wales, 42% of results were downgraded.
According to figures from Ofqual, England’s exam regulator, pupils at independent schools received double the improvement in A* and A grades compared with those attending state comprehensives.
“What has happened to swathes of my students,” commented Sarah, the head of a sixth-form in west London, “is just cruel, disgusting and absolutely inhumane.”
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, described the situation as “utterly unfair and unfathomable”. Barton added that: “The statistical process has proved to be far too blunt an instrument and has created clear injustices.”
“It is a huge injustice that pupils will see their results downgraded just because of their postcode,” stated Kate Green, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary.
Unlike in Scotland, however, the Tory government has dug its heels in. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, for example, has insisted that the grading system employed was “robust and fair”.
Again, this has sparked an outcry amongst students, teachers, and parents, with the prospect of student protests in cities across the country in the coming days.
Inequality and education
The future of hundreds of thousands of young people has been thrown into disarray overnight. With students distraught across the country, the question we must ask is: why has this happened?
In a longitudinal study of children’s cognitive abilities, Dr Leon Feinstein found that, over time, children from poor backgrounds who initially showed high cognitive ability were overtaken by wealthy children who initially showed poor cognitive ability.
The one thing they all had in common was access to education. Different education. The poor attended schools with class sizes of a minimum of 30 pupils, and rich kids went to schools with a maximum class size of 15 students. The resources available to the latter far outweigh those available to the former group.
Furthermore, the rich kids received additional private tutoring, or their parents were able to help them with homework. Working-class students often have parents working full time, or even holding down two jobs just to pay the rent. Exhausted or unavailable parents do not have the opportunity to set aside time for homework.
Dr Feinstein declared that poverty clearly impacted on cognitive ability. Feinstein also looked at people who were born in poverty and found that, at age 30, they were still in poverty. Unremarkably, people born into affluence were found to be, generally, still wealthy at the age of 30. Feinstein, correctly declared that social mobility did not really exist in the UK.
These findings have also been borne out by the research of Wilkinson and Pickett in their 2009 book, The Spirit Level, which exposed the destructive effect of inequality on society.
The education system under capitalism is set up precisely to ward off social mobility. Its main purpose is not to breed success, but to ensure failure; to maintain the bourgeois elite and the pool of wage slaves underneath.
It also encourages working-class students who get good grades to look down on their peers who fail to achieve. This is a classic example of ‘divide and rule’.
These qualifications can have a huge impact on the future life experiences of young people. Why, therefore, do we cram assessments for them into such a short and intense exam period?
Surely, coursework spread over the year is a more realistic assessment approach? This is more likely to encourage deep learning and critical thinking. After all, it is the process of researching, examining, analysing, reflecting and discussing that is the most important aspect of education.
The capitalist drive for failure needs to be replaced with the encouragement of learning for its own sake. The fight now must be for the abolition of the exam system. In its place, we need to develop an effective and holistic education system, as part of a socialist society based on people’s needs – and not on class divisions, profits, and capitalist competition.
Only in this way can we give the next generation the future they deserve.