While the current round of results is seen as an avoidable fiasco, the real value of education has never been more apparent.
After a year of turmoil, uncertainty, sudden announcements and mountains of marking, students will be turning up to school this week to collect their results. These results will be based, we are told, on schools’ own moderation and quality assurance processes (with some window dressing from Ofqual, again paid for in teacher time). While there are no good options for discriminating fairly between student performances under the present conditions, this approach seems to have been the worst of various possible options.
The first disadvantage is already obvious: university admissions officers are warning of unprecedented grade inflation – of up to a whole grade – meaning that many more people will be qualifying for courses such as medicine. This years’ results will be anomalous, and it remains to be seen whether the ’20 and ’21 cohorts will see their grades accorded less weight than those of previous years.
The second disadvantage was also apparent at the time that the decision was made: students from more economically advantaged homes will, on average, do better under the present system than students from disadvantaged circumstances. While some have argued that this is to be expected in a pandemic, where existing inequalities are highlighted, that can hardly be a justification for exacerbating inequalities further by administrative choice. One would have hoped that ministers and officials would have done everything in their power to close, rather than widen the gap.
The mindset behind these moves was exposed in an extraordinary report by the Institute for Government this week, in which it was made clear that the lack of contingency planning was a deliberate choice imposed directly from Downing Street. Essentially, the virus was expected to comply with the government’s policy of keeping schools open at all costs, but perhaps its political awareness was overestimated. Instead, we had the farce of schools being threatened with court action if they closed early for the holidays to reduce spread, re-opening for one day after the holidays to ensure that the virus was transmitted as widely as possible for one day, and then being told to close the following day. This culture also gave us the ‘exams will definitely happen’ line, until we had ‘exams definitely won’t happen’ line, and the cascade of exam boards’ work to teachers. The price? Uncertainty for schools and students; huge workload for teachers; endless assessment for students; widespread reports of stress and mental health challenges; and now, rampant grade inflation.
All of this has led to some people calling for radical reform of education and the scrapping of exams altogether. It should be abundantly clear from the current situation why this would be a terrible idea. Exams provide the fairest, most secure and independent way of assessing what students have learned, and are especially important for students who have less economic and family support to fall back on. They provide an objective set of outcomes for which schools can prepare students; and they allow teachers to focus their time and effort on teaching, rather than completing the summative assessments that schools are already paying exam boards to provide.
That said, education can and should provide much more for students than exam results. Teachers are role models: many people can look back and identify one or more teachers who were powerful influences on their lives. Exposure to knowledge changes us; encountering different world views can be alarming, challenging and liberating. Learning to communicate our ideas and feelings, and to understand those of others, is a very desirable outcome for education. It is a reasonable expectation that most of those who get good exam grades have also acquired at least some of these benefits; but what happens to those who don’t get ‘good’ grades (and remember, the system is set up to ensure that some don’t)? One of the great disadvantages of focusing schools on exam results has been that the outcomes for those children who were not going be ‘points on the board’ have often been ignored: they didn’t meet the threshold, so they didn’t count. A Grade 3 or a Grade 1? Doesn’t matter- they don’t count on the performance dashboard.
Education needs exams, but students need more from their education than just exams. That’s why reading matters. Exams, by nature, aim to differentiate outcomes. Reading is the great equaliser. If you can read, you can teach yourself – regardless of your teachers, your school, your neighbourhood or your parents’ jobs. You can encounter a wide range knowledge, different points of view, develop the background knowledge essential for curriculum success. Reading lends dignity, security and independence.
In a better world, perhaps we will judge schools not so much by their exam results, but by how well all our students can read.
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