Cancelling exams will not level up

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One of my big questions about the new lockdown concerned the thinking of the Government in cancelling exams this summer. Last May/June, it was obvious why exams were cancelled, we were in the middle of lockdown and so it was theoretically unsafe to run the exams. I say “theoretically” because there were people who argued that exams should have gone ahead, after all, students under exam conditions also tend to be socially distanced.

Now, it is possible, though (hopefully) extremely unlikely that the reason for exam cancellation is that the Government knows something we don’t know and does not have full confidence in its vaccination programme, that the mutations are proving resistant and that we will still be cowering inside our homes come May. If so then we are in real trouble and we’d do better as I said in a tweet yesterday refocusing our efforts on teaching kids to hunt, gather, scavenge and keep an eagle eye out for zombies as we enter a post-apocalyptic dystopian age.

However, that does seem extremely unlikely, I suspect the whistle will have been blown by now. More likely is that once devolved governments started cancelling things it became untenable for Westminster to hold the line in relation to England. Furthermore a narrative has emerged that it would be unfair to expect children to take exams having had their education so badly disrupted.

The basis for that argument is that the lockdown will discriminate most against children from more disadvantaged backgrounds and against the less naturally able in academic terms.  The big concern many have is that whilst some middle class children will in effect benefit from home schooling as parents take time to support their learning,  those from more disadvantage backgrounds and especially from troubled homes will not get the benefits of this.

Whilst I don’t disagree with the overall narrative there, I would challenge its simplicity a little. To be sure there will have been kids in families where learning at home was impossible. There will have been others who got support.  However, on the other hand:

  • The most vulnerable children will be in school experiencing education in smaller class sizes.
  • For many children, they will have actually been removed from two of the biggest challenges to their education, peer pressure and bullying.
  • A lot of children will actually feel more able to drop their teacher an email and say “I don’t understand x or y” and get support than they will to put their hand up in class in an environment where their peers may either mock their ignorance or actively discourage learning.
  • Actually, those middle class parents still have to do their jobs and may not be able to give proportionally any more time than they would in the evenings and through employeeing private tutors in normal conditions.
  • Don’t underestimate the ability of working class parents to tell their kids to sit down and get on with their work whilst middle class families are off pursuing their own enriched education making daisy chains and enjoying underground play-dates because “there’s more to life for kids than school.”

So, whilst for some children, the absence of school will be a disbenefit, others (and not just those in m/c contexts may actually find that school wasn’t the golden bullet assumed. However, I do accept that overall, the closure of schools will have the biggest negative impact on those already disadvantaged.

However, I am not convinced that cancelling exams is the answer and here is why. I do not think that exam grading is a great instrument to use in  social engineering, in ensuring equality. I think that is one of those areas where CS Lewis would say that you put first things first because if you put the second thing first, you lose both the first thing and ultimately the second thing too.

Good education primarily levels up because it gives children access to knowledge and skills that they will be able to use to their advantage.  And here we come to one of the basic problems with inequality as we experience it today.  I write as someone with significant experience of recruitment in industry.  What gave someone a fighting chance sitting across the desk from me t interview or as we reviewed the photographs of apprentice candidates on assessment day was if they knew their stuff and were able to demonstrate the skills we were looking for. Those were the things that got me to stop and look beyond the letter or number on a piece of paper.

Now, all things being equal in terms of grades and subject knowledge, what is it do you think that gives certain children an unfair social advantage in the recruitment battle for jobs and university places? That’s right, it is the extra-curricular activities, contacts and self confidence that class and money seem to open doors for.  This means that the class of 2020 and now 2021 will be robbed of two aids at interview. First of all the ability to display knowledge and skills as there will be a gap and secondly the confidence boost that comes with knowing that “I achieved that grade through my own hard work and ability alone.” It means that employers who will be wary of what the grades tell them will look much more at the candidate’s wider background as evidence at least of social skills. 

We help the more disadvantaged not by amending their grades but by giving them the knowledge and skills necessary.  This is exactly why our government for better or worse was extremely reluctant to close schools in the first place. But now we are in that position, the question is what will we do about it? How will we correct the imbalance? How will we make up the gap that will run right through the system so that children in ten years’ time will still be trying to catch up? 

It is for those reasons that my personal preference would be to see exams delayed a little to allow for catch up and summer schools put on to provide for students down through the school years. It’s why I have been among those urging the government to look at measures to get schools open by

  • Looking at hybrid options so that social distancing can happen whilst students also get a level of in classroom contact time.
  • By rolling out the vaccine to teachers early to reduce the risk of staff shortages due to COVID
  • To investigate the possibility of prioritising students for receiving the vaccine enabling them to continue at school and also at the same time potentially boosting the possibility of herd immunity by immunising a potential class of super spreaders.

The point is this, whether or not you agree with me that exams should go ahead this summer, and whilst no solution is perfect or problem free, I hope you will agree with me that simply cancelling exams and relying on predicted grades is nowhere near an adequate solution to the problem.

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