Opinion & Thought

Prizes for all?

exam

The fuss over this year’s exam results was probably inevitable. I suspect that those with political axes to grind spotted a sitting target a long time ago, and they were not about to give up the opportunity to horsewhip the government over it lightly.

I have no desire whatsoever to provide excuses for the shower that currently passes for the British government – but their biggest error in this case is probably yet to come – by performing a U-turn on the grades just issued.

There was never going to be an easy way of accurately replicating the outcomes of the exam hall. It seems to me that using an algorithm that considered:

• a school’s past performance profile
• students’ previous work
• as well as their teachers’ predictions

was about as good a mix as was likely to be possible. The fact that it has not delivered prizes for all should be seen as a strength not a weakness – because the normal exam system does not do that either. That is not intended to suggest that it was perfect, nor that there are no errors.

Many of those shouting loudest at the moment seem to be claiming that teacher predictions should have been pretty much the sole determinant of outcomes. Yet these are notoriously unreliable, as has been shown over many years. Mine often were. It may be true that teachers know their students’ potential better than anyone else – but that has never been the only factor affecting exam outcomes, and so if the aim is consistency with past years, it should not be the case now either. Potential is prone to wishful thinking.

It is not as though teachers or schools these days have no vested interest in talking-up their students’ exam results – both individual and institutional reputations rest on them. (Indeed, it was my insistence on reporting the truth about an apparently under-achieving class rather than the unsubstantiated grades that my superiors wanted to see, that contributed to my premature exit from the profession some years ago). I know enough about pressures on teachers elsewhere for this not just to be an exception; therefore, I am wary about heavy reliance on teacher predictions, and I think the exam boards were wise to be so too. The pressures to talk grades up are just too great.

But there are bigger issues here.

There is an enduring belief in large parts of the teaching profession that the testing system should deliver ‘prizes for all’ – without any apparent recognition that doing so would simply devalue them, as all forms of inflation tend to do. Focusing on positive achievement is all very laudable – but success is meaningless without the possibility of failure.

That is part of life’s lesson that education really needs to deliver. Talk about what our “young people deserve” is often based very little on reasoning about what that really means (especially for people who have not lived long enough to “deserve” much at all) – and much more on indulgent wishful thinking by adults whose own supposed success depends vicariously upon it. Being charitable, people often arrive at this world-view from a genuine desire to rectify the legacy of social disadvantage – but dispensing extra-cheap prizes for all is not the way to do it.

Young people “deserve” to learn that we do not always win in life – and that they cannot expect all of life’s goodies to drop into their laps just for breathing fresh air. That, I suspect, is by far a more widespread – and more insidious – delusion than the opposite.

I should qualify that by saying that I do support trying to find the best in all people – but that is not the same as giving them all high academic qualifications. The fact that the system we have largely focuses on this at the expense of all else, is the problem here. But trying to use the exam system (and indeed education as a whole) primarily as a form of social engineering has always seemed to me a Pandora’s Box of the worst kind. Not least, it has led to the widespread conflation of “education” with the process and outcomes of prepping children to jump though a certain sort of performance hoop; their chances of success at that is what those having hysterics right now are really worried about, not the wider educational impact.

The only way to escape this minefield is to keep the examining system rigorously independent: assess all purely on their academic potential if you will, and do not be swayed by any other considerations. But also providing much better routes for the non-academic to excel in other fields.

The biggest problem of all, however, is the own goal that we will score by the way this issue is repeatedly covered in society more widely. The cries of indignation are also just another expression of the entitlement complex that causes people not to wear masks or socially distance if they think they don’t want to, those who habitually claim they have been hard done-by. The same complex that cries “it’s not fair” and stamps its foot every time it doesn’t get what it (thinks it) wants.

I am heartily sick of hearing that the exam issue – and indeed Covid 19 – has “destroyed” young people’s lives. There are certain educational problems that it has created, most importantly for those who were at the critical stage of basic skills such as literacy, for whose early-years development time does not wait. Likewise, the logistical problems for those about to enter a new phase of education are real – but they are just that – logistical, not intellectual. For almost everyone else, this has been a brief disruption that amounts to no more than a few percent of even young lives.

The most hysterical shouting has been about “wrecking young people’s mental health”. This from a society that, until it became a buzz-topic, cared almost not at all about that issue; this from a system that as I have seen at first hand, does plenty itself to damage young people’s mental health, through the pressure that comes from the anxiety-inducing hype that I mentioned earlier. I have seen far too many young people whose pleasure in learning was destroyed by the endless targets and pressure to “perform”; the latest is my talented niece. I have seen even high achievers rendered nervous wrecks by the stakes the felt they were playing for – all of which is the product of the system that our societal attitudes – not its young people, nor the ‘crisis’ – have created.

The peak of this stupidity is the hysteria with which the adult world – particularly the media, but many others too (including teachers) – rushes around discussing the matter. If there is one thing pretty much guaranteed to give young people anxiety, it is adults telling them just how “damaged” they now are, and just how “ruined” their lives will now be as a result of six months’ disruption.

If there is one thing that young people do not “deserve”, it is being the unwitting grist in the mill of the endlessly churning political-media-educational machine or becoming the focus of indulgent adult insecurities. It is why I instinctively felt that for many, a break from it might be at least as beneficial to their well-being as harmful. And we risk adding to the complex by insisting that they now need “intensive care” catch-up courses for all of that damage that must have been done.

I am certainly not advocating neglect of genuine mental health problems: I know more than well enough from personal experience just how destructive they can be. But I also know that a serious risk in mental illness is the power of auto-suggestion – of talking oneself unnecessarily into a damaged mindset, thereby creating problems where none might otherwise have existed.

And at the root of all of this is – yet again – the commoditised, zero-sum view of education that now rules this country. It just isn’t like that: I have seen plenty of young people who have made very good lives for themselves despite not having been academically successful, and I have seen plenty who have made little of having some of the best educational opportunities of all.

In 1982, I got on my bike and rode to school to collect my ‘A’ level results. I felt a mild pleasure when finding out that they were better than I had feared. Both the anticipation and the event had a small impact on what would now be called my ‘mental health’ – but it did not damage me for life. And the one thing that was completely absent was the societal hype about the whole thing. It is still like that in at least some other European countries, where education is still seen more holistically – and where they seem to be treating the same current problem much more calmly.

Yes, this year has been one like no other when it comes to the exam season. Those who never sat their exams are entitled to be feeling somewhat cheated by the lost opportunity to show their worth. But they would be feeling less not more cheated, were the whole of their educational experience not focussed to the point of obsession on what happens in the exam hall.

For most, there will be other exam seasons during their careers, and for those at the upper end – doing Finals – these exams mostly took place anyway. For others currently sitting on critical performance thresholds, it would seem reasonable to implement an enhanced appeals procedure – though that should still not mean caving in to “prizes for all”.

The biggest disservice we can do to young people at present is to hype the supposed “damage” that has been done, and to play down the benefits from wider activities of which plenty have availed themselves, let alone the benefits of a break from the grind of the formal educational conveyor belt. If we lead them to believe they are irreparably harmed, then they are likely to believe it; they will feel “aggrieved” if we tell them they should be.

At very least, any harm should be considered against the benefits for plenty from wider educational activities, more time spent with parents and families, the enhanced sense of community that has resulted, and simply a break from the unremitting conveyor belt that is the modern educational experience.

But that is not something about which many claiming to be standing up for the pupils – while hastening to make all the political or professional capital they can from the situation – will be probably be too concerned.

(This post also appears on my professional blog).

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