The Advanced Level Certificate (A-level), together with the General Certificate of Education (GCSE), is one of two sets of exams students across England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland has its own system) sit in the summer. The GCSE is a ticket to spending two years studying for A-levels, itself a ticket to university, where 40% of England’s schoolchildren end up. The results are released in August by the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual.)
This year, there were no exams because the United Kingdom locked itself down against COVID-19. Instead, teachers supplied predicted grades. Teachers make these predictions every year, and it is with these in mind that universities make the offer of a place. Offers are made either unconditionally or with the proviso that the predictions are realized or bettered. In recent years, more and more offers have been made unconditionally, and these now comprise around a third of the total.
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Universities do this because they are dependent upon the fees each student pays: no students, no fees, no university. The pressure rises as universities expand, and each finds itself having to attract a greater share of a shrinking number of school leavers. Restrictions imposed by a hostile immigration service on international students’ movements, and now in response to COVID-19, have made matters worse.
This year was also different because, when the results were issued on August 13, it was obvious that Ofqual had intervened. The grades awarded to many students bore little resemblance to the schools’ predictions. Worried that teachers were being too generous and that this would undermine the credibility of the exams, Ofqual devised and applied a mathematical formula to moderate the results. The algorithm took account of the students’ mock results and the performance of each school in previous years, amongst other variables. The calculations determined that 40% of grades should be reduced. This threw offers and plans into doubt, causing umbrage among students, parents, teachers and universities.
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, stuck resolutely to his guns. By August 17, he had abandoned them, and the original predicted results were reinstated. Williamson had been blindsided by Ofqual, he claimed, and only became aware of the full implications of the recalculations over the weekend. Ofqual struck back, saying that Williamson had known difficulties were brewing ever since March, when he ordered the regulator to adjust grades if they appeared inflated.
It was then made known that the head of Ofqual, Roger Taylor, established and ran a firm implicated in the Mid Staffs Hospital scandal. His firm, Dr Foster, had come up with an algorithm enabling the hospital to present its mortality rates as low when, in fact, they were dangerously high and its patients were being dreadfully mistreated.
Just what had Gavin Williamson been levelling at? The entire mess was completely avoidable and unnecessary. No exams had been taken, so there were no exams to be brought into disrepute. And there had been no exams because of exceptional circumstances. So why treat the teacher’s predictions as an assault on standards, especially when predictions are made every year and unconditional offers are issued to a fair proportion of students as a matter of course?
Whatever the answer, the response was immediate. Gasps of disbelief at the secretary’s sheer incompetence (“He’s fucking useless,” declared one vice chancellor) were combined with emotional outbursts from students worried that their lives had been ruined, from parents trying to deal with the fallout at home, and from university staff whose summer breaks were interrupted.
All parties most likely suspected that things would eventually sort themselves out if only because chancellors are desperate to fill seats. Having said that, the government and Ofqual displayed a complete absence of trust in teachers and schools. Most disgraceful was the treatment of students with potential and drive who had worked hard against the odds in schools assessed as poor over the last few years. At a macro-level, it meant that the proportion of the most deprived pupils (the bottom third) who achieved a Grade C or better fell by nearly 11%, while the independent schools saw their proportion of A and A* grades increase by nearly 5%.
An education secretary, whose only claim to the job is that he was not educated at an independent school and did not go to Oxford or Cambridge, willfully took away the ladder from the very kids it is meant for. A more callous and spiteful decision in the name of equality is difficult to imagine. However, the farrago matters for another, even more important, reason. It illustrates just how superficial education has become.
Grades Are Everything
The A-levels are not just a passport to university. A school whose students’ average grades fall too far will come under greater scrutiny from the government, which can end in sanctions of one sort or another. These include changing staff pay and conditions; removing staff and governing bodies; turning the school’s budget over to an interim board; closing the school; or handing it (minus its former staff) to an academy. Academies, though state-funded, have more control over management, curriculum, pay, the selection of students and staff, and the freedom to attract money from private sponsors.
Of the 3,400 or so state-funded secondary schools (3.25 million pupils), nearly three-quarters (about 2.3 million children) are now academies. If an academy fails, then it, too, is either absorbed by a more successful one or closed. Independent schools judged to be failing can also find themselves in trouble. For instance, they may be prohibited from taking on new pupils, fined or closed. Proprietors who do not respond adequately to enforcement notices can end up in prison.
Grades, then, have come to mean everything. And because they mean everything, what they are supposed to signify has come to mean very little at all. The education system — and “system” is a good description — barely manages to educate. Where a good education is found in English schools, it is provided by teachers and parents despite the vast amount of nonsensical instructions (misleadingly entitled “guidelines”) issued by the government. In these oases of levelheadedness, staff teach outside the system’s narrow confines, helping children to explore more rounded and deeper understandings of the world, introducing them to new ways of thinking.
The problem is not just that teachers are weighed down and worn out by red tape. To avoid falling foul of the government and its quality enforcers, teachers must consume millions of words of legislation, statutory instruments, notices and guidance that lay out in extraordinary detail everyday practice within the school. It is that education — or rather the fulfillment of standards dictated by the government — has become a bureaucratic procedure, a glorified exercise in form-filling, in which content, imagination, experimentation and sustained and unconventional thought no longer matter.
Children and teachers must do what they are told to do in the way they are told to do it. “Best practice” holds sway over fresh thought. The student must see the world as directed. Thus, for instance, a play is a composite of meaning shaped by literary and dramatic devices. History is an unstable melange of constructions arrived at by historians through their interpersonal relationships. The economy must be studied through the application of the correct economic models. Only by breaking the mind into a kaleidoscope of skills through which patchworks of information are collected and assembled, declare geography teachers, can social and natural worlds be understood. Facts, interpretations and evidence are set out in neat bullet points so they can be memorized and marshalled in the correct way and in the correct place.
All of this and more — such as precisely defined “command words” like “analyze” and “suggest,” and the marks to be awarded for each correctly placed fact or argument — is found in thick, glossy volumes of “specifications,” “amendments,” “sample assessments,” published “resources,” “mark schemes,” “specimen papers,” “exemplar material,” “schemes of work,” “skills for learning and work” and “topic materials” produced by exam boards for each subject.
Officialism smothers all schools. But when parents are well educated and bring up their children to read, learn, write, talk and think coherently, teachers have an easier time of it. Children are confident, and this shows in class and in their work. Teachers know that as far as the exams are concerned, their students can, to all intents and purposes, teach themselves. A teacher’s immediate job is to make sure a child is practiced in the bureaucracy and is given the required information. This will deliver the grades.
The second, and more important job, is to lead their children out and well beyond those limitations. It is this — a passion for their subject and a willingness to go further — that really prepares the child for university and beyond. Most, though not all, of these schools are independent and selective.
State-funded schools are far more constrained by the system, and it is all they can do to meet its demands. The bureaucracy does not allow them the time, freedom, money or incentive to instill in children and parents the outlooks, values, beliefs, practices and confidence that will enable them to see beyond the government’s petty world view.
I should say that the distinction I make between independent and state is too stark. There are some excellent state schools, and there are some terrible independent schools — unhappy little communities tucked away in some old building in the countryside. My point is simply that education, rather than its bureaucratized version, is found unevenly and rarely, and is more likely where teachers and parents have the wherewithal and determination to play the system and so keep it from dragging them and their children down into a mire of niggling and pointless tasks, boredom and despondency.
Not Much Help
British universities have not been much help. Rather than find common cause with schools and encourage them in fostering a university-style education, universities have gone along with government reforms all too easily and are becoming more like brash, over-confident schools. The university has become a brand, an experience, a rite, designed to extract as much cash as possible from students. Walk away with a good degree, the student is told, and our brand will confer upon you a charisma, a light, a duende that will set you up for life or at least give you a foot in a door so that you show an employer what you can do. Meanwhile, behind all the pizzazz, the content of the degree is scratched away at and the process through which the certificate is awarded becomes more bureaucratic.
The trend is especially obvious in universities without a well-established pedigree. Why should a student pay tens of thousands of pounds for a certificate from a university no one has heard of? The answer is “relevance,” and relevance means “skills.” As the degree is hollowed out, the space is filled with an omnium-gatherum of skills: cognitive skills, intellectual skills, key skills, transferable skills, employment-related skills, practical skills, applied skills, inter-personal skills, writing skills, reading skills, thinking skills, networking skills, team-working skills, observational skills, speaking skills, speech-making skills, analytical skills, editing skills, note-taking skills, research skills, computing skills, entrepreneurial skills, lab skills, creative skills, leadership skills, work ethic skills and ethical skills.
Choose a verb or adjective, put the word “skill” after it, and it becomes teachable, assessable and marketable. To write an essay or a thesis or to take an exam is to engage in a piece of bureaucracy, an updated form of medieval scholasticism, in which all these skills are stitched together, tracked and traced.
By lifting a corner of the veil, the A-level fiasco exposes a little of the humbug swirling around the government’s education system and something of the cynicism with which the government treats the people it claims to represent. Just how deep this cynicism goes, however, is revealed by a matter from which the farce distracted public attention over the last week — a week that I suspect will prove deadly. I say deadly because it will be difficult in the time left to deter the government from repeating the same mistakes it made at the start of the pandemic that cost over 40,000 lives.
At present, the UK government and its scientific advisers are busy saturating the press with its claim that the “life chances” of children will be damaged irreparably if schools stay closed. A generation of children will “fall behind,” many of those who rely on schools to feed them will go hungry, and many others, forced to stay at home, will be at greater risk of physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
The government’s chutzpah is breathtaking. To indict the produce of its own policies and then use that indictment as cheap blackmail in support of those same policies is surely the height of contempt. A fifth of the population is poor because of government actions and inactions over many years. It is these “ordinary” people, as ministers like to call them, who are most under pressure to go work because of cuts to welfare, changes in benefit rules and threats from government.
It is also they who, last time around, suffered most from a virus allowed to run loose. And it is their children who are most likely to bring it back home after struggling on public transport and spending hours in crowded classrooms working on pointless and soul-destroying bureaucratic techniques. The only strand of reasoning that makes some kind of sense in this tangled web of lunacy is a ruthless one: the primary function of the education system is to keep Britain’s labor force — and especially its cheaper end — at work.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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