School Exams – More Systemic Failings

It is clear that saying the 2020 A-Level results have been a “huge mess” is probably something of an understatement. Some, like me, would struggle to describe it as anything less than a veritable ‘shit-storm’ for individual students and the system…

Expectedly, a media festival of emotive reporting has quickly ensued. This has compounded many of the problems already being faced by those individuals receiving their results; like the the stress induced mental-health impacts for those students. This debacle has clearly heightened the levels of existing upset and anxieties, feelings and emotions that are often experienced by many, in what is undoubtedly an emotionally charged situation.

The education secretary struggles in vain to avoid looking a hopeless numpty over the grading debacle (The Guardian)

All said, is there a way forward from all this mess? Is there a new possibilities for future some improvements? Or, as is so often the case, should we simply expect yet another revert to past normal, after a quick sidestep from a few fall-guy politicians, perhaps a cabinet minister demotion? All quickly followed by a name/remit change for a government quango or two, leaving nobody to blame and then, as soon as the dust has settled, revert to the age-old normality in the process?

Who Is Failing Who?

Regardless of the undoubted Covid-19 pandemic impacts leading to these current problems; this situation has, in the main, been yet another example of media and political manipulation of facts – something that also clearly underpins our whole UK school exams process.

The Scottish Conservatives were also quick to “slam Nicola Sturgeon for exam results” (see here), immediately prior to facing a similar political and social fiasco south of the border. At least Ms. Sturgeon apparently had some [media induced] ‘decency’ that led her to a prompt apology (see here) I suppose.  

Post Event Verbal ‘Warfare’

Clearly, combatants from all the political parties, shored up by an enthusiastic divisive media machine, are engaged in some expected pugilistic debate. Many suggest there have been ‘intended’ racial and class factors at play within the grading algorithms (see here). The shouting will undoubtedly continue for some time yet probably… or for at least as long as the media interest continues.

Also expectedly, UK devolved administrations are salivating about the possible opportunities which have been presented, to politically bash their peers – with cudgels of hindsight – in the administrations across our national borders. 

I suspect the political point-scoring opportunities, that have undoubtedly been presented by this fiasco, will rumble on for some time yet. And all this before we even begin to consider or deal with supporting any disgruntled and disillusioned students. There will be many young people (and their parents) who have received grades that were far lower than they might have expected, temporarily dashing their future personal (and parental) aspirations about University… at least for now.

In the context of exams this summer being cancelled, we had 2 broad aims: to make sure as many students as possible could get grades so they could move on to the next stage of their lives and to do that in as fair a way as possible. (OFQUAL)

2020 Exam Results

The BBC asked; Why did the A-level algorithm say no? Prior to the subsequent ‘political’ U-turn, about the previously applied algorithm based grading process, the UK Government reported that,  “Overall, A level results at grade A and above are higher than in 2019, by 2.4%.” (see here). So, shouldn’t we be pleased? Our teachers are clearly serving their students well – aren’t they? If the results are indeed so much better than previously, why so much anger?

“The majority of grades awarded to students are the same or within one grade of the centre assessment grades (CAGs) – 96.4% at A level and 91.5% at AS.” (OFQUAL)

Irrespective of the (partly justified) sociopolitical angst and undoubted student despair, we do need to remember that the education process in 2020 has not been ‘normal’ – thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, I personally remain unconvinced that any political party would have done much better, if they were in government. Regardless of the expected prompt applications of vitriolic rhetorical hindsight.

As reported by Full Fact on the 16th August (see here); it is always wise to be circumspect when digesting published headlines. This year’s grades didn’t actually show significant differences to the overall results of past years. Despite the pandemic, or indeed due to any subsequent debacle, at least prior to the political u-turns north and south of the Scottish – English border.

Most year-on-year variation in A-Level performance is very marginal across England, Wales and Northern Ireland (most students in Scotland don’t sit A-levels). The level of students, or selected subgroup, achieving a particular grade tends to go up or down by a few tenths of a percentage point on the year before. (Full Fact)

That said, a “furious” Iain Dale (see his LBC monologue) still suggested that the Government’s handling of exam results is a “political scandal” – many would probably tend to agree with him, me included.

On the 13th August  2020, the Government announced that; the final data published by Ofqual shows – “students have not been disadvantaged due to their background by this year’s awarding process” (source gov.uk). And they went on to suggest that, as a result of this year’s results; “A-level and vocational and technical qualification results will hold the same value for universities, colleges and employers” as in previous years” (source gov.uk). Both comments are seen by many in society as both incorrect and another inflammatory moot point.

All that is as maybe however; many people, predominantly but not exclusively on the left of politics, will continue to dispute those bold assumptions. There will also be those who tend to chip-in with suggestions that exams are being ‘dumbed-down’ each year but, are exams really getting easier?

What Next?

So now what do we do? Where did it all go wrong and what happens next? After the (mostly expected) Government U-Turn on exam results has arrived, what is going to happen to all those additional students who now have their required ‘qualifications’ – will they actually get their desired university places? Some still won’t so what will that mean for them?

The politicians and civil servants within government quangos may have mishandled the situation however; perhaps now maybe one of those opportune moments for some change. A period to consider a much-needed comprehensive and systematic overall, of the whole schools exams process.

Systemic Overhaul Required

Whenever political policies are applied to statistical information, and used as the key performance indicators (KPIs) or ‘proof’ of efficacy, there will always be political interference in the that process. As with our Health Service NHS A&E waiting time figures, or the Crime Recording Counting Rules applied within policing, the Schools Exam Results statistics (like the Schools League Tables) will always be, at least partly, flawed.

All the above processes are simply convenient gauges, one way of quantifying what is being delivered. They rarely take account of quality and/or the experiences of individuals, at any given point in the cycle of process within the system. What they definitely don’t quantify is; de facto evidence of system or indeed individual efficiency and worth, that many people believe they do.

It is widely known that people can and do perform well in exam conditions, irrespective of their previous apparent lackluster performance. Conversely, many can also fail the grades when it comes to exam day (my particular forte), despite ticking all those learning assimilation boxes whilst participating in a longitudinal education process.

However, education, just like any other system, particularly our public services, is (or should be) all about the ‘quality’ of the ‘why’ and the ‘purpose’ in that process. Not simply crowing about or, in this case, bemoaning what are manipulated statistical results. 

Here’s a possible left-field option. Why not cancel school exams all together? After all, many people (outside of politics or academia) no longer believe the exams genuinely give the evidence they are supposedly designed to provide. How about removing the current GCSE exams, at both standard and advanced levels, completely? Why not replace them with a simple certificate of attendance, with no final testing component?

Some will say that this wouldn’t provide a filter for academic capability, which current exam grades (supposedly) provide, and are then subsequently used for accessing adult/higher education entrance. However, is that really so important? It could reasonably be argued that today’s, A-Level grading actually provides little more than a convenient filter for university placement applications.

“Universities and colleges set their own entry requirements for higher education courses, and these vary widely depending on the subject, the specific course, and the course provider. They set the entry requirements for each course to ensure you have the right skills and knowledge to successfully complete the course.” (UCAS)

Why not make the universities do their own selection process… with interview and/or entrance exam where required? In reality, that’s what they do anyway… isn’t it? However, perhaps the proof of attendance could additionally be upgraded to include sub-headings covering factors like; engagement, study time, productivity, if/where required. All of which could be attributed with an ‘average’ or ‘above average’ grade, provided by teachers. Which, in reality is very similar to the basics of what has subsequently transpired in 2020 – teacher grading. 

The Future?

OK, I’m not a member of the teaching profession. Thankfully, I also don’t have any children who need consoling, as a result of their apparent ‘failure’ at what is a difficult time in their lives. However, what I can do is draw upon a lifetime of lived experience and social observations.

Personally, I don’t believe that any lack of childhood ‘qualifications’ created too many insurmountable negative impacts for my future, far from it. ‘Poor’ performance in school exams didn’t spoil any of my personal expectations, aspirations or opportunities in life. Perhaps I’m lucky, perhaps I didn’t strive hard enough for ‘unrealistic’ expectations. I never aspired to being rich or famous. Or being retired from a law firm, FTSE 100 company, living in some palatial suburban pile, spending time retirement income whilst holidaying in my own quaint Gîte on the French Riviera… and all prior to reaching the age of fifty. Of course, that was all before ‘reality’ TV and social-media!

Whether or not I chose to follow any of my personal aspirations, as opposed to those projected by others (parents, teachers, peers, society), is immaterial and a different matter. The important factor here is, they were my personal choices, not fashionable social expectations that I was ‘obliged’ to adhere to. Whether or not I have any regrets, about the choices I made or options I chose to explore is my issue… not a societal or political problem.

I also don’t believe that the current ‘shit-storm’ will present too many significant or long-term negative impacts. The students of today, who are the employees of tomorrow, mostly control their own destiny, a delay won’t prevent future aspirations, they are simply on hold for a short period… unless they choose to let those circumstances dictate their future. At worst and in reality, what is an extra year or two as a percentage of a lifetime? So, there might be a slight delay before they (hopefully) get to where it is they (realistically) want to go. So what? 

In any case, where did this sudden urgency for an immediate university place, directly after receiving A-Levels results, come from? Is it a personally developed idea that has simply become a common fashion or, another one of those intended societal constructs born in politics and group-think?

What happened to the old ‘Gap-Year‘ phenomenon? Where people travel and find themselves and/or consider their future options? I’m old, so I suppose that’s now “so yesterday” and passé. Maybe those hedonistic sabbaticals, almost de rigueur at one time, the staple constituent of many a student’s life passage, is no longer a fashionable thing?

That gap, between time spent in secondary school education, and moving on to subsequent higher (adult) academic study appears to have fizzled out. Those who still enjoy the gap tend to do so after university now. Probably because they are finding that their three years of study, successful graduation and a subsequent degree qualification doesn’t provide what they expected. Sadly for many, they find the reality of the situation where; their degree certificates are apparently, not worth the paper they are written on.

Today, a degree isn’t always the key to the door of employment, at least not in the way it once was and, despite all the best efforts of politicians over recent decades, That situation has probably worsened, rather than being improved. Often, there are now so many degree applicants for ever, irrespective of any higher education requirement. Unless you have something way more than BA(Hons) on your CV, in whatever subject, don’t expect to get much further than the application paper sift process. Particularly if you are trying to secure a good position to commence your chosen career pathway.

Degree qualifications are often like the confetti at a wedding; they might help to celebrate the event but they can’t dictate success or longevity. Today’s workplace wedding venue attracts many highly competitive guests. Potential job applicants are all pushing to secure limited space on a shinny surfaced dancefloor.

When you look around, there are now so many people who are working within unexpected roles, given their apparent university education and qualifications. It isn’t hard to cite examples of people who have been awarded a ‘good’ degree yet, they are still obliged to work in jobs that don’t reflect (or require) their academic capabilities. This is another one of those facts of life, where the financial necessities of living tend to dictate our choices for survival… irrespective of any past laudable, but often sadly unrealistic, expectations about reality.

OK, taking a year out (prior to university) is not within the reach of everybody however; is there really any need to perpetuate this headlong rush into the toil of adulthood? I suspect the prominent aspirational drivers again are mostly financial but also ones which are the projected expectations presented by parents and increasingly, by the social-media driven society that we live in.

We have a tendency to forget the facts and the realities; our school years are simply the beginning of our educational process, not the end of it. As ever, I’m reminded of the Greek Philosopher Epictetus who offered some useful observations for this whole situation:

  • “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them”
  • “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”
  • “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

I’m not suggesting that we should ignore the importance of our school years. I value the process of higher education (and continuous development), a degree shows that you have academic and analytical skills which are useful and always valuable however and in closing; it might be an opportune moment to consider and ponder upon a pertinent Albert Einstein observation…

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”

 

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