Thursday, April 25, 2024
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Exam mess that’s a cruel blow to white working-class pupils


THE exam system is a mess, for all the Government would like us to think otherwise.

Back in 2019, we had fully-taught, full-syllabus, public examinations. This year, we had algorithm-chaos followed by teacher-predicted grades.

Next year, we are being promised a restoration of exams. They will be based, though, on widely varying amounts of teaching preparation for pupils.

The least-privileged, especially the white working class, are going to take a hammering. They are the ones who suffered most during the months of missed schooling under lockdown.  

Alongside this we have another mess. Marks of under 20 per cent are now formally described and recognised as examination ‘passes’ rather than what they really are – proof of incompetence in a subject. 

Grade inflation is a further mess. It is, in a most dishonest way, being driven out of the examining process. This year, the pass rate at A-Level was up from 97.6 per cent to 98.3 per cent.

Zero grade inflation is close. GCSE, too, is heading in that direction with England’s overall pass rate this year rising ten per cent to 78.8 per cent. In Northern Ireland it has reached 89.4 per cent.    

Just to add to the shambles, some syllabuses are to be diluted for 2021. Speaking tests, for example, have been scrapped for  GCSEs in French, Spanish and German.

Such dumbing down is akin to reducing the precious metal content of silver and gold coins. It afflicted England in the mid-16th century and was common enough under Roman emperors. These days we simply print, or summon up, more money.

The consequences are always much the same, whatever the arguments for Keynesian economic policy. The German philosopher Georg Hegel was right: ‘We learn from history that we do not learn from history.’ What applies to money also applies to public examinations.  They, too, are a form of currency.

The announced three-week delay to next summer’s exams is not going to offset the impact of several months of missed schooling for millions of children.

They are the ones whose parents cannot afford to purchase a house in the catchment area of a good school, let alone pay for private schooling or home tutoring. 

Our comprehensive school system imposes a form of educational apartheid on children. The well-off kids come out of it a lot better than the less well-off! This is a fact that BBC’s Reality Check needs to check out!

With a 2020-2021 Covid-19 season ahead of us, some schools and some teachers are keen to shut up shop as soon as possible. Some will battle on – heroically, in many cases. What is certain is that examination preparation for pupils is going to be very uneven. 

We need clarity, and that clarity needs to be based on an honest evaluation of the situation. The only viable way forward is to face up to the situation and, effectively, to ditch public examinations for 2021. Publish teacher predications instead.

The ‘honest’ dimension comes in not pretending that these predications are the ‘real thing’. With an accuracy rate of 16 per cent for A-Levels they, clearly, are nothing of the sort. 

Since GCSEs are better predictors of university performance than the now-defunct A-S Levels, they could be used alongside school reports for university admissions in 2021. Next year’s A-Level cohort, after all, took uninterrupted GCSEs in 2019. 

Instead of this instant clarity, further dispute, dissension and confusion lies ahead. What a mess, indeed!

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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