The government's shambolic handling of A-level results should prompt a rethink of how our education system works, writes Roy Wilkes
The government’s handling of A level results during the Covid pandemic has been extraordinarily inept, even by the low standards of this serially incompetent government. Commenting on the ‘triple lock’ announced by Gavin Williamson to meet concerns about the reliability of exam results in England, Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:
“After months of defending the system devised by Ofqual to determine this year’s GCSE and A level grades, Gavin Williamson has been forced into an embarrassing U-turn. He should have listened to the concerns raised much earlier by teachers and assessment experts. Ignorance and inaction appear to have been his watchwords.” (1)
The alternatives under this “triple lock” are to use mock grades, which are not standardised in any way (some schools mark them harshly to encourage students to work harder, while others take the opposite approach); or to take the exam in the Autumn, which is hardly fair on students who haven’t been taught since March.
Even Sir Keir Starmer has been roused from his slumbers. "This is a complete fiasco. It was obvious that this was going to be difficult but it's been weeks or months in the coming. To have an 11th-hour decision that's caused widespread chaos amongst teachers I have been speaking to, families and young people - it smacks of incompetence." (2) Harsh words indeed from the forensically weak leader of Her Majesty’s ferociously loyal ‘opposition’.
Let’s not kid ourselves though that this is a freak ripple in an otherwise smooth pond. School age exams aren’t fair. They have never been fair. The 11 plus openly and deliberately discriminated against girls. (3) Less openly, but no less surely, it discriminated against black and working class children through cultural bias. As do GCSEs and A Levels.
Better off families have always been able to give their children exam advantages in numerous ways: private education, extra tuition, better access to books, travel, theatre etc. Children who grow up in impoverished and insecure households on the other hand will inevitably be exposed to more stress and anxiety than their peers, which will of course have an impact on their exam performance. Assessment by coursework, which was supposedly introduced to make qualifications fairer and more accessible, had the opposite affect; it gave middle class families yet another opportunity to bend the system in their favour.
Every assessment system involves some element of human subjectivity - both in setting the questions and marking the answers. Exam boards try to regiment and standardise their judgements but I know from many years experience as a GCSE maths examiner, and as a GCSE maths coursework moderator, that errors, subjectivity, arbitrariness and variability are rife, even in such a supposedly value-free subject as mathematics.
Exam boards always norm reference their results to some extent. The system is inherently competitive. It doesn’t measure any sort of objective quality of a student, but how they measure up in competition with other students. It is built into the system that a certain proportion must fail. Indeed, failure is a crucial element of the system; it encourages a high proportion young people to doubt their own abilities and to accept a lowly position in the social hierarchy. Although Ofqual denies that there is a fixed quota for each awarded grade, there is nevertheless a de facto quota which is rarely challenged. Ofqual admits that GSCEs have never been criterion referenced, which is a roundabout way of saying they have always been norm referenced. (4)
Covid has now scrubbed away the thin veneer of fairness with which we tried to shroud the unfair essence of our exams and qualifications system. SATs, GCSE and A Level exams were all cancelled. Expecting teachers to award grades in lieu of exam results is blatantly unfair on both students and teachers. There are too many variables, too many unknown unknowns, and of course, too much unavoidable human subjectivity (not to mention institutional sexism and racism) to enable a fair allocation of grades.
Teacher assessment grades were ignored. GCSE and A level grades were awarded on the basis of rank ordering combined with the performance of students at the same the school in previous years. This combines the worst of all worlds: the subjectivity of the teacher and a statistical analysis of the performance of completely different cohorts of students. (5)
Schools can appeal grades on behalf of individual students, but they have to pay a substantial fee to the exam board if the appeal is not upheld. (6) Cash strapped schools will want to minimise this risk and will therefore strictly ration appeals. Schools usually offer parents the option of paying the fee themselves, which means of course that it is far more likely that students from middle class families will get an upgrade.
Unsurprisingly, students from private schools fared considerably better out of this crisis than the rest. Ofqual found 48.6 per cent of private school pupils attained an A* or A this year – an increase of 4.7 percentage points.
In comparison, secondary comprehensive schools saw an increase of just 2 percentage points, from 19.8 per cent to 21.8 per cent. Sixth forms, further education and tertiary colleges experienced the lowest percentage point shift of just 0.3 percentage points. (7)
The awarding of grades during Covid blows apart the myth that if a clever working class child studies hard enough they can succeed and get on in life. In reality, a clever, hard working student from a deprived area will probably have been downgraded on the basis of a statistical analysis of the historic exam performance of their school. How can that be fair?
Covid won’t only affect this year’s exams. There is no way on Earth a fair assessment system can be concocted for the years ahead given the variable impacts of Covid on different cohorts and on different groups within each cohort. Those starting Year 11 in September will have missed a considerable proportion of the Year 10 part of the GCSE syllabus, for example. Local lockdowns, either of whole towns and cities, or of class or year group ‘bubbles’ within individual schools, will compound the difficulties of fair assessment. Those in lower year groups will have been set back by widely varying amounts in their academic progress before they even start their GCSE years. Students going on to sixth form colleges will similarly be embarking on A levels with widely varying degrees of preparedness. There’s no getting away from the fact that Covid has driven a coach and horses through any pretence of fairness that our exams and qualifications system might otherwise have had.
Instead of trying to patch up a rotten system, we should instead be asking fundamental questions about what our exams and qualifications system is for and whether it would be better to scrap it altogether.
Our exam system isn’t there for the benefit of the students, but as a means of grading and rank ordering young people in order to fit them into a hierarchical social division of labour. It atomises and reifies students as a step towards atomising and reifying them as workers. It enforces competitiveness as a prelude to life as an alienated worker in the permanent war of each against all. It is a dehumanising system that is fit only for a dehumanising world, and it should be scrapped altogether.
This isn’t only about assessment and qualifications. The exam system drives the entire education system. Even before league tables and performance related pay, teachers and schools were always judged on exam results. The exam boards have always therefore retained effective control over the curriculum. What’s more, there is now a direct relationship between the exam system and big corporate capital. Exam boards are not public bodies. Edexcel, the UK’s largest exam board, is wholly owned by Pearson’s, the world’s biggest educational publisher (8). Privatisation of the exam system gels nicely with the privatisation of schools through academisation. If schools are to be perfected as instruments of reification it makes sense that they should be controlled in every way by corporate capital instead of by elected councils.
Every school denies publicly that it is an exam factory. Every school, if it is being honest, admits privately that it is exactly that. The exam system drives not only what is taught but how it is taught. Cramming and rote learning take precedence over exploration, discovery and the development of deep understanding. Atomised assessment drives atomised learning. This approach is as absurd as it is dehumanising. Human beings are above all social animals. Every mode of production in history has been based on social labour. And yet we are assessed as isolated atomised individuals; and we are usually expected to learn as isolated atomised individuals too.
In this dehumanising system, it is understandable why many students rebel and ‘misbehave.’ For the reason that most students don’t rebel and misbehave but actually do their best to get on in the system, despite the odds and challenges. This is also an entirely rational response.
Teachers are of course expected, as a primary condition of employment, to ‘control behaviour’ in their classroom. Relations that should be cooperative and mutually supportive are often therefore deeply and unnecessarily antagonistic.
If we were to abolish the current system of school age exams and qualifications, what would take its place? Our starting point should be what is in the best interest not of future employers but of the students themselves. Assessment should be entirely formative and supportive. In other words, it should form part of an ongoing conversation between teachers and students about what are the next steps along the path to lifelong learning. The aim of all assessment should be the educational and social development of every young person as a human being. It should not be to sift and grade (and in many cases to fail) students in order to arbitrarily assign them particular positions on a social and economic hierarchy of domination and subordination.
Liberating schools from the tyranny of the exam boards and the academy chains is a necessary step towards liberating the curriculum itself. We can’t develop a decolonised, anti racist, anti sexist curriculum until we have wrested control of our schools from capital. And a necessary first step in that direction is to scrap GCSEs and A levels.
But, but, but... aren’t GCSEs necessary for deciding who gets to do A levels? Aren’t A levels a necessary prerequisite to studying a subject at university? In a word, no. GCSEs are a hurdle, an obstacle to prevent some students from studying at sixth form level. A Levels are similarly an unnecessary obstacle to undergraduate study. I taught maths for thirty years. I did my maths degree at Open University. Many of my fellow students didn’t have A level maths; some had even failed maths O level at school. And yet they were not only coping with degree level mathematics but flourishing. We should be facilitating students to study whatever they want at whatever level, not throwing obstacles in their way. We should be building bridges to learning, not barriers.
But, but, but... without A levels, how would elite universities like Oxford and Cambridge select students from the many thousands who apply for places? Well perhaps it’s high time these institutions ended their elitism altogether. Abolishing exams would set us on a path towards democratising education at every level.
Scrapping exams would liberate education workers from the tyranny of abstract data and league tables. We could then concentrate on what we do best - helping students to learn, not as atomised and reified individuals, as machine parts tested to near destruction, but collectively, as complex, sensual, social beings. Education workers and students should therefore make common cause in fighting to abolish this rotten and unreformable exam system.
(1) National Education Union press release 13th August 2020
(2) Independent 13th August 2020
(7) Schools Week 14th August 2020
Roy Wilkes is a retired maths teacher, former GCSE mathematics examiner and coursework moderator.
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