Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson, Photo: US Secretary of Defence Flickr / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY 2.0, linked at bottom of article

The education system is built to preserve class society, that’s why the right are crying foul when working class kids do better than planned, argues John Westmoreland

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate;
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Class societies are like a pyramid. Maintaining the social hierarchy has been the concern of ruling classes from time immemorial, and education is a primary tool for maintaining the status quo.

All things bright and beautiful, the hymn from which the verse above comes, was written in 1848 by a high church Tory. 1848 was a year of Chartist protest, European revolutions and the Irish potato famine. It has no doubt soothed the nerves of the great and good to hear it being sung by generations of children. Everyone should know their place lest revolution and chaos overturns the divinely inspired hierarchy.

Of course education has its dangers. An educated working class is a dangerous working class – as Gavin Williamson’s attempts to ban radical teaching (in this year of mass protests) attest. And this year’s A-level results are causing a panic.

Around 30 per cent of A-level grades are expected to be an A with 19 per cent getting an A*. This means almost half of all results will be top grades. Last year the figures were 38.6 per cent of A-levels were graded A or A*.  

The rise in educational attainment should be good news but some middle class commentators are crying ‘grade inflation’. This is a slur on the achievements of young people based on the fear that more working class students are set to invade the hallowed halls of Oxbridge.

Class in the classroom

The public are made to believe, as Boris Johnson’s office said today, that, “exams are the fairest form of assessment”. All students sit the same exam in the same conditions. If the exams are marked fairly, then the results will be fair and everyone will get their just desserts.

But that is not how it works.

Educational outcomes are decided by class. If that was not true there would be no public schools. The ability of public schools to provide entrants for Oxford and Cambridge is a key selling point. Therefore privately educated students sitting an exam have benefited from more one-to-one teaching, better resources, and more stimulating surroundings than state school entrants.

Posh students are not more talented or deserving than less advantaged kids, but they have to end up on top. The entire ethos of our public schools is that they are creating the ruling class of tomorrow.

Hard working teachers in mainstream schools and colleges, and who teach students just as gifted as their richer peers threaten the inherent elitism in the system.

However, in normal circumstances this can be managed. Exam board statisticians play a decisive role.

Exam grades and ‘grade inflation’

After exams have been sat, exam boards have to set grade boundaries. The boundaries set have to provide an outcome that satisfies predetermined criteria.

For example, if an excess of students get A* and A grades, beating their predicted grades, then more students will meet the offers made to them by prestigious universities. This leads to less take up at the less prestigious institutions too, upsetting the whole system. Too many students at elite universities is not sorting the academic sheep from the goats, and an outcry from the Daily Mail is inevitable. Furthermore it undermines the rationale of paying for a posh education at Eton in the first place.

This is why educational outcomes from exam testing need careful management. Exam board statisticians set grade boundaries to give the final outcome a predictable shape – one that will not cause any shocks and will fit the narrative of government. This is not to say that the awarding process is entirely cynical. The job of the statistician is to present a result that is acceptable and will not lead to outrage and further investigation. The expectation that public schools will do well is built in to the system.

The algorithm used by the Tories last summer caused outrage because it revealed the blatant class bias in educational outcomes.

This year’s results, however, have been based on teacher assessed grades (TAGs) and have escaped the statisticians and their algorithms. The result is that working class kids have done much better than they were supposed to.

This has led to the charge of ‘grade inflation’ – a term which deliberately suggests inaccuracy – from papers like the Daily Mail and Telegraph.  

Another fine mess

The results have put the Minister for Education in a pickle. The Tories have been forced to defend TAGs from right wing critics in their own party.

This was not the intention. Gavin Williamson held out against TAGs until December last year when he was forced to acknowledge that students had missed too much education to make an end-of-year exam viable.

He no doubt hoped that TAGs would make teachers the scapegoat for anything that went wrong. As the NEU’s Mary Bousted told the Times:

“I think there was a political decision to put teachers in the firing line.” 

“There will be a rise in the top grades but I’ve been assured by government that they won’t say teachers have been too generous.” 

Williamson has dutifully defended TAGs saying, “Students deserve to be rewarded after so much disruption”. And as the architect of ‘so much disruption’ he should know.

But Williamson, in defending this year’s results, is under attack from the Tory right.

Lord (Ralph) Lucas, a Tory peer and Editor-in Chief of the Good Schools Guide, is using the right wing ploy of claiming victimhood for the well-to-do. He has predicted that private school pupils will be disadvantaged in admissions because universities are “prioritising the disadvantaged.”

One has to wonder what kind of public figure could advocate prioritising those that already enjoy advantages, but it gets worse. 

Lord Lucas is worried about universities that will be ‘pretty cautious’ about giving places to fee-paying youngsters who missed their grades as they had ‘all the chances’ to succeed. Instead, they will give leg-ups to pupils who experienced ‘challenges’ such as having ‘nowhere to work’ during lockdown. 

Just imagine his Lordship’s suffering, seeing kids with ‘nowhere to work’ lording it over kids that have enjoyed ‘all the chances’!

Nevertheless, much to the chagrin of Lord Lucas, the government are having to defend TAGs for the time being.

A spokesman for Boris Johnson said:

“Students have worked incredibly hard during an extremely challenging time. We know exams are the fairest form of assessment but in their absence this year there is no one better placed to judge their abilities than their teachers.”

To be continued

The government’s defence of TAGs, even if it has been forced on them, will be registered as a strength of classroom-based assessment. Teachers who are forced, by content-heavy syllabuses and large class sizes, to ‘teach to the test’ can make the case for a reform of teaching and assessment.

Exams are not the best means of assessing ability. Next year some TAGs will be necessary again and this discussion will continue. Teachers’ unions need to take control of that discussion now. We want neither God nor Gavin Williamson to ‘to order our estate’.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.