Boris Johnson Discovery School

England’s exam results fiasco has exposed its flawed education system | Melissa Benn

By ignoring teachers and downgrading results, Ofqual has highlighted the deep inequalities between our schools

There is nothing a politician fears more than the organised public wrath of a group of articulate parents, headteachers and the ex-chief inspector of schools. The approaching furore over A-level and GCSE results, when up to 40% of teacher predictions in England are likely to be downgraded, suggests we have a long, hot summer of complaint, campaigns, appeals or even judicial reviews ahead. The Scottish government’s decision yesterday to review its now publicly repudiated system for allocating exam grades, very similar to that used in England, only adds to the mounting pressure on the government.

This anxiety and anger is understandable. To prevent undue grade inflation, the exam regulator, Ofqual, will be sacrificing young peoples’ futures to an algorithmic exercise in standardising results. Revising predicted grades in light of a school’s pre-existing exam record runs counter to the feeling of natural justice that individuals should be judged on their efforts (or, in this extraordinary year, on their potential and past achievements).

Ofqual may have labelled these “exceptional arrangements”, but in many ways they highlight how England’s exams system already works. Rather than using a system known as “criterion-referencing”, where students are awarded a grade in any given subject according to whether they meet an agreed standard, students’ exam grades are instead decided every year in reference to each other – an arrangement called “norm-referencing”. Many teachers have long despaired about explaining to students that their results depend not just on their own efforts, but on how well or badly others in a year group have performed.

And for all the talk about relying on teacher assessments during this pandemic, those keeping the standards juggernaut on the road appear to have presumed that teachers optimistically inflate their students’ achievements, and that mathematical modellers are needed to keep unruly humans in check. It’s a long time since our exams system genuinely placed its trust in the professional judgment of teachers, and this year is no exception.

This summer’s results will also further entrench the structural inequalities that lie at the heart of the English school system. Headteachers working in disadvantaged areas grasped this, with rising anger and despair, as soon as Ofqual confirmed in May that it would judge teacher predictions against the “historical performance” of a school or college. Heads charged with improving schools in impoverished areas rightly stress the time and hard work involved. They must engage young people coping with poverty, austerity and now Covid-19. Many, they say, were making good progress despite the pandemic, and did much better in their mocks than they might have expected.

This year’s exam results won’t just shatter individual confidence in the system – they will confirm that this system disadvantages the already disadvantaged at every turn, despite its official rhetoric about closing gaps and improving social mobility.

If anything good comes of the current furore, it will be the much-needed conversations that are now taking place within the profession. Beyond the favoured few school leaders whom the government apparently listens to, or promotes, three interrelated issues, which have been sharpened by the pandemic, recur in conversations between heads, teacher representatives and policymakers.

Even before lockdown, there was growing rebellion against “punitive accountability”, a shorthand term used within the profession for a bundle of tests that supposedly keep schools on their toes but, many believe, unfairly penalise schools serving disadvantaged children. These include highly contested Ofsted judgments, the determination of a school’s success by raw results, and the publication of the percentage of children who achieve particular grades in a core suite of subjects: the so-called English baccalaureate (“EBacc”). Failure to meet the right criteria can ruin a school’s reputation or lead to the peremptory sacking of a headteacher brave or foolish enough to take on a school in trouble.

And in February, the influential Headteachers’ Roundtable launched Pause Ofsted – a call for polite non-compliance with the government regulator – and an implicit rejection of the absurdly polarised language about good and bad schools that has long dominated national discourse.

Meanwhile there’s growing concern among heads and teachers over the fate of what the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) call the “forgotten third”: those children and young people unable to meet “expected standards” by the end of primary school and again at GCSE. (By definition, few get to A-level.) Not only only do thousands fail to meet a narrow, academic grade, shaped by an outdated model of private and grammar schools, but too many are tragically turned off learning for life.

No one believes that devising an alternative way to judge school standards would be simple. But increasing numbers of school leaders are now convinced that we have to move beyond raw metrics, and begin a more grown-up conversation about alternative ways to measure success.

It is not just educational radicals – a group Michael Gove loved to dismissively characterise as “the Blob” during his time as education secretary – who are making these arguments. Many of the professionals who desire a new approach whom I have spoken with and listened to over the past few months welcomed aspects of the standards agenda of New Labour, and were often compliant with coalition reforms. The vast majority don’t call for a return to local authority control (many lead multi-academy trusts) and they yawn at stale debates around traditionalism versus the progressives, or school discipline.

But they do believe that our school system has gone too far in a damaging direction, and that a raft of reforms are long overdue, including a radical overhaul of Ofsted, a more flexible curriculum, and a new look at an exam system that narrows subject specialisms as a young person moves through school. They think such changes will boost, not diminish, standards.

Sadly, they face a government both rudderless and rigid on education, still powered by Gove-ian nostrums. Despite Boris Johnson’s promises to increase school funding, the Education Policy Institute has confirmed that government proposals will boost cash to better-off schools.

But school leaders are in an unusually determined mode. The pandemic has sharpened their confidence. Most leaders and teachers have risen heroically to the challenge of the crisis, and everyone now understands that schools are not mere centres of “performance”, but of entire communities. Parents, too, have a much better understanding of what is involved in education.

I don’t imagine this government will be responsive. But Labour would be foolish not to join the conversation about alternatives to the current system and to shape its own educational policy around it. The nation – particularly the many parents frustrated by this recent results controversy – might finally be ready to listen.

 Melissa Benn is a founder of the Local Schools Network. Her latest book is Life Lessons: The Case for a National Education Service

This article was originally published in the Opinion column of The Guardian newspaper on Tuesday 11 August 2020 and can be accessed here. Melissa Benn is an Honorary Vice-President of the SEA.

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