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Photo: David Hawgood / Exam tables in sports hall, Epsom College /cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, linked at the bottom of article

Photo: David Hawgood / Exam tables in sports hall, Epsom College /cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, linked at the bottom of article

It’s not just the potential of a repeated exams fiasco next year but the role of exams in education altogether that needs to be challenged, argues John Westmoreland

The Covid-19 pandemic, and the woeful mishandling of it, is forcing us all to think of new ways of doing things. The pandemic has laid bare the failings of capitalism, the market and its political enforcers.

Nowhere is this more evident than in education.

The exams fiasco in August brought to light the fact that social class is still the most influential factor determining educational outcomes. The pre-determined and class-based distribution of exam grades was exposed.  Posh schools did well at the expense of students from working class backgrounds.

The experience has left its mark. Everyone is wondering what is going to happen next year. Ofqal, the exams regulator, has been consulting on this since July, and announced its initial recommendations. But they have still not decided if and when next summer’s GCSE and A level exams will go ahead. A crisis is brewing, and the best solution might be to scrap exams altogether and move completely to schools-based assessment.

Exams, data and funding

The marketization of education has imposed a business culture that has run counter to the interests of teachers and learners alike. In short, what should be a happy and fulfilling experience for young people, has become a pressurised slog of testing that leaves many casualties in its wake.

Business models require data, and exams and SATs are the means by which data is amassed. Data is used to drive the business model. Results provide the data for Ofsted inspectors, and for schools to earn their place in the league tables - and to be publically shamed if Ofsted deems it necessary. Funding, especially in Further Education, is tied to results.

This means that students, in the process of being educated, are reduced to units of data that are in turn units of funding. The pressure to get good grades comes from the demands of the business model, which has to be seen to succeed. The risks to health and wellbeing, to say nothing of self-esteem, are endemic.

Exams were always a questionable way of assessing ability. Exam technique can often get a better result for the candidate than intense revision. In any case there is a great deal of luck involved: from getting the question you mugged up on, to how you are feeling on the day. The business model has made exams indispensable to its function. As a result teaching to the exam and revision classes eat up teaching time, and stifle imagination and creativity in the classroom. The Covid pandemic has disabled the testing regime.

Quantity vs quality

The closure of schools in March and the adoption of home-based learning thereafter has disrupted the data-driven business model. Of course it has been a difficult time for children studying from home, missing their friends and structured learning. The mental health of many children has been impaired too. But there was a silver lining in that SATs and exams were made impossible.

Learning without the pressure of an exam has meant that teachers have been able to think about education rather than testing.

The return to school in September has not solved the problems besetting data-driven education. Exams can only be sat if the full specification has been taught. This is proving to be impossible. Children going into year 11, having missed much of their year 10 work, are unlikely to be ready for their exams in June. Putting the exams back until August, as is being considered by the Minister for Education Gavin Williamson, is not a solution. Exhausting teachers and children for the sake of exam credibility is self-defeating.

Some FE colleges are using split classes that have one half of the students working at home and the other half in class. There cannot be paired or group work. Nor can the teacher sit with a student to go over their work. Many exam board specifications are ridiculously content heavy, forcing teachers to plough ahead and deny all those (usually more relevant) learner generated avenues of enquiry a space.

Imagine having to teach Germany: 1918-89 by Christmas as the Edexcel history AS level syllabus requires. It is nigh on impossible to do it properly, and something has to give.

The easiest solution, and the one most likely to succeed, is to allow teachers, to come up with their own methods of teaching and assessment that can meet the needs of the situation. Scrap exams. Scrap an over-burdened specification. Develop an alternative to both from the pooled talents of the teaching staff.

Student initiated project work is a proven means of eliciting all the outcomes that are required in higher level study. Projects can use interdisciplinary knowledge and skills. It gives students ownership of their learning and provides motivation. Projects involving: research methods; written and oral presentation; peer and teacher assessment; are far more valuable than cramming for an exam.

The Tories like to bang on about liberating the people when they privatise our services, but they are frightened out of their wits by liberating education from stifling government interference. And that is another excellent reason for scrapping exams and saving education.

Tagged under: Education Covid19
John Westmoreland

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.

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