The government’s mishandling of exam results for this year’s A-level and B-Tec students shocked the nation. The additional stress it caused for our young people is indeed shocking – but sadly should come as no surprise. The exam results fiasco is a logical outcome of the Tory approach to education: to treat our children as statistics rather than human beings preparing for life through learning.
In 2013 Michael Gove axed coursework as a component of GCSE and A-level grades, one of his reforms pushed through without consultation with the teaching profession. Gove wanted to inject more ‘rigour’ into education, by which he meant tipping the balance back from skills-based to knowledge-based learning. He wanted to ‘raise standards’ by prioritising the ability of primary school children to recognise a fronted adverbial (no, me neither!) over the enjoyment of reading.
Gove’s reforms placed ever greater demands on their performance in high-pressured exams, easily translatable into league-table data. He claimed this would ‘equip them to win in the global race’. In 2019, a survey of teachers and support staff warned that the mental health of their pupils was at ‘crisis point’.
Then the pandemic hit. Schools needed government to support the incredible efforts of teachers to adapt school learning to the new circumstances, and tackle the long-standing inequalities in education. Instead it relied on a ‘schools must re-open’ mantra, began shifting blame onto safety-conscious teachers and parents, and spoke as if education had ground to a halt.
Having put all their eggs into the final exam basket, the government tossed it aside. Education secretary Gavin Williamson announced in April that exams were to be scrapped, since adapting them to lockdown was too difficult; then promised he would find a fair way to grade pupils; and finally the bombshell in August: actually, we are just going to distribute grades statistically. Forget individual effort – you’re fodder for an algorithm that defines you by where you come from.
Our children don’t need a ‘world-beating’ education, but one that will help them become skilled and resilient in the creation of their own futures. We should explicitly value pupils’ wellbeing and core skills such as critical thinking and creativity, continue to improve mental health provision, and reinstate assessed coursework.
Squeezing pupils back into a building will not resolve inequalities in education. Equal access can only be achieved by carefully designing effective policies, guided by teachers and other experts. In tackling the next phase of this pandemic, our young people need their government to do a lot more homework.