Lessons from the exams fiasco

The enforced government U-turns over the grading of this summer’s school exams has shone a spotlight on the inbuilt class inequality inherent in education under capitalism.

The disputed algorithm at the heart of the grading controversy had inequality programmed into it. With school students unable to sit written examinations because of the Covid crisis, schools were asked to provide estimated grades for their GCSE and A-level students based on their knowledge of the students’ work. But the exam authorities decided that these predictions then had to be processed through an algorithm that prioritised the previous overall exam performance of the school, rather than that of an individual student.

Both the exam authorities and ministers had been warned that the inevitable outcome of this approach would be for students in schools with a lower ranking in exam league tables – primarily those serving working-class communities – to be downgraded. On the other hand, students in schools that had historically good results – such as fee-paying independent schools – would be upgraded.

Thanks to the youth who came out to protest against this unfair treatment the algorithm was withdrawn, and exams awarded based on the original school assessments. That victory will add to the confidence of a new generation that protest can bring results.

But why, historically, do schools in working-class areas generally perform less well in comparative exam league tables? Socialists would have no truck with any reactionary notion that this was down to the supposed ‘superior intelligence’ of the children of the wealthy. No, we look to the material conditions that explain those differential outcomes.

For a start, it is no surprise if students educated in schools with smaller class sizes and greater teaching resources do better in exams than those in an underfunded urban school struggling to meet a wide range of needs.

A mass workers’ party in Britain would have to campaign to bring a genuinely comprehensive education system in to place. While most local authorities abolished selection at eleven many decades ago, parents know that, even in areas without formally selective grammar schools, some local schools are still seen as ‘better’ than others. Academies and church schools, sometimes operating covert methods of selection and ‘off-rolling’ of pupils that they want to remove, widen the divide.

The educational divide has grown further under the impact of funding cuts, league tables of exam results, and Ofsted gradings that all further disproportionally disadvantage schools meeting the greatest needs. Of course, the greatest divide of all exists between the state sector and the fee-paying independent sector, particularly schools like Eton and Harrow educating the children of capitalism’s elite.

Unchallenged, under British capitalism in decline, this class inequality will only get worse. Post-war capitalism, with a growing need for a skilled workforce, was prepared to accept more of its profits being spent on state-funded education. Now, it is increasingly seen as an unnecessary expense.

Socialists stand for all schools, including academies and those currently in the private sector, to be brought together under democratically elected local education boards so that a genuinely non-selective comprehensive system can be planned and agreed, with funding in place to meet all needs.

However, inequality in society as a whole has the greatest influence on educational outcomes. Poor housing and nutrition, lack of access to computers and the internet, parents working long or unsocial hours, inability to afford private tuition and textbooks – these are just some of the factors that influence children’s lives. Even the best efforts of schools, teachers and parents are unable to counteract them sufficiently.

A socialist society that used the world’s resources to provide a decent standard of living to all would start to address these inequalities and, by doing so, diminish educational inequality too. A fully funded genuinely comprehensive system with a broad and balanced curriculum for all would aim, as Karl Marx wrote in Capital, for every individual to become the “fully developed human being”.

But would there be a place for formal exams at all in a socialist education system? In 1918, after the Russian revolution, the Bolsheviks abolished exams and decreed open access to all universities. Is this still applicable today?

Abolishing exams would certainly improve the mental well-being of many young people. This is a particular issue in Britain where the emphasis on exam performance, including the results of formal SAT tests at eleven in England, has created an ‘exam-factory’ culture that distorts education and encourages ‘teaching to the test’. It has also contributed to a ‘fear of failure’ that has been identified as a significant reason as to why teenagers in the UK consistently record some of the lowest ‘happiness levels’ in Europe in international surveys.

In response to this year’s exam grading crisis, the National Education Union (NEU) is calling for an independent review of assessment methods and an end to “the current over-reliance on exams”. The NEU rightly points out that school assessed grades based on teacher assessment of students’ work, linked to a proper system of national moderation, can give at least as accurate a measurement as formal written exams. They certainly give some young people a better opportunity to show their knowledge and abilities than a stressful few hours sitting in an examination hall. Given the ongoing disruption to education from Covid, then it is also going to be an immediate necessity to avoid this year’s crisis repeating itself in 2021.

A socialist society would still need a means to assess and verify the technical and social skills of individuals performing particular tasks in society. But, even if based on teacher assessment, exams under capitalism remain essentially a method of rationing progress, of sifting young people into those who can attend university, those who may get employment – and those who will probably get nothing at all.

The university system itself is further polarised between Oxford and Cambridge, the rest of the Russell Group universities, and down through the perceived order of merit to the colleges at the bottom of the pecking order. This was, after all, why A-level downgrading was such a threat for some students who protested to make sure they could still get a place at the higher ranked university that they were hoping to attend. This polarisation, made worse by the marketisation of university places, has to be challenged. All students have the right to a high quality education, not just a few.

A socialist education system must ensure that all young people have a choice – as the Young Socialists’ Charter demands today – of a university place, training or employment. That choice should be a genuine one, based on the wishes of the young person, not through rationing imposed through exam scores. Education, and society as a whole, should also be organised in a way that breaks down the division between ‘mental and manual labour’ that exists under capitalism so that everyone can develop a full range of skills and knowledge.

Of course, this presupposes a society where sufficient resources are made available to provide that genuine equality of opportunity where youth can choose the life options they feel best suited for, rather than leaving it to exams to artificially ration what is on offer.

Where those resources did not exist in a poorly developed Russia, ravaged further by civil war, the Bolsheviks were never able to develop their policy in practice. The abolition of exams, alongside other far-sighted educational reforms, soon fell victim to the Stalinist counter-revolution which reverted to the former stratified curriculum.

But those Bolshevik reforms provide, to paraphrase Marx, a ‘germ of the education of the future’ that socialist educators should build on today.

Martin Powell-Davies