The chaos in school grading systems across the UK has exposed educational inequality, but many of the solutions offered misunderstand the problem argues Jenny Morrison.
The exams fiasco across the UK of the past few weeks crudely exposed the normally veiled class nature of the Scottish and UK education and assessment systems. When justifiably angry young people refused to tolerate their future being judged on their postcode, the debacle also showed that protest and class solidarity work and that those in positions of power do not know better nor act fairly.
Yet, the dominant response of ‘trust teachers’ also showed the limitations of the solutions many demanded. This demand was the one to hand, and was teed-up not by teachers themselves but by education authorities, who introduced the stop-gap of teacher assessments.
Reverting to the original teacher assigned grades has not eliminated inequality from this year’s exam system as congruent schools – those that marked to the SQA moderated national standard – were effectively penalised relative to those schools which were incongruent.
Moreover, this inequality hints at a perhaps more significant issue: teachers are not neutral actors in the class system. Evidence suggests teachers enact gender, racial and class bias in their grading (as do students in their evaluation of teachers) while bias also exists when students are assigned to higher/lower sets and in teacher expectations which can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Continuous assessment is not the panacea it is sometimes presented as either. Teacher and parent input – not to say direct cheating – into things like project work in private schools is high. Student’s affected by stress at exam time are likewise affected during term time. Poorer students often have to juggle paid work or personal concerns over the whole year – some may even prefer to focus on an exam period.
That some private schools have joined the criticism of the SQA system should indicate caution – do such schools truly want to have a more equal education system or do they just want to get round the ‘problem’ of nationally moderated exams and be able to assign their students As for being able to afford their fees?
Might a teacher assigned grading system result in private school grades being assumed to be inherently worth more with grades from deprived areas always under suspicion? The Tory promoted phenomenon of free schools – free from local authority control and from the national curriculum, thus promoting a two-tiered education system where the content and teaching in free schools is unaccountable – does not yet exist in Scotland. But forces are pushing for such a system here – including wealthy individuals keen to break down what they view as Scotland’s irrational, nanny state local authority entwined school system.
Like the education system as a whole, there is little doubt that local authority control has failed many young people and communities. Scotland’s local authorities are huge and uncountable – it represents one of the worst local authority systems in the western world. But that does not mean that the designs of wealthy anti-welfarists or religious fundamentalists (who sponsor many free schools in England) call for greater local control and school autonomy out of a sense of civic responsibility.
This is not to argue in favour of a system of highly regulated, nationally moderated high-stakes exams. Criticism of the existing system and its class effect are well-made. Rather the progressive potential of tinkering with the edges of the existing system without wider system change is deeply limited. School grades, however they are arrived at, say little about a person or their abilities, academic or otherwise.
Universities replicate problems of the school system and their internal stratification, with elite institutions creaming off students with the top results who disproportionately come from well-off and ruling class families, becomes the justification for the system itself.
As noted elsewhere on Conter, the decline of official reformism means significant policy changes can happen on the hoof, in the chaos of maladministration or anger at class-based injustice. While fighting against these injustices, and accepting that victories are sometimes imperfect or arrive at flawed solutions, we must bear in mind the total social picture, with all its complex moving parts and conflicting interests. After all in recent decades at has been the right which has most often turned state failures and moods of emergency to its benefit.