Education: Not A level playing field

FRFI 169 October / November 2002

There is outrage over this summer’s A level examination results. Perhaps thousands of pupils and certainly hundreds of teachers got far lower results than they expected. ‘I was staggered. I never got a U (ungraded) in my 16-year teaching career’ was a typical teacher’s response.

What now seems clear is that the head of the QCA Sir William Stubbs warned the exam boards as early as March this year about grade rises, giving ‘a very strong guide to this year’s outcomes’. As a result marks were slashed from sections of completed exam papers in an arbitrary and random way. Candidates who got A for some work had 20% chopped off their marks for other work, resulting in a crazy mish-mash of results.

This is different from the usual process of raising and lowering the bands dividing grades so that, for example, the top 20% get the top grade each year regardless of their actual marks. Although Stubbs is implicated and has been sacked, with Education Minister Estelle Morris hoping to keep her job, it is government policies that are to blame.

Exam grades are rising year on year in Britain. Instead of being a cause for celebration, this increase is seen as a problem. Schools are suspected of ‘teaching to the test’ from the age of seven and pupils learn to pass exams and little else. After all, they are the most tested children in the world.

There is a direct relationship between good exam results and higher education, well-paid employment, money and status. Those who already have these privileges jealously guard their ranks and are quick to talk of lower standards and making life too easy for young people. This year’s exam result ‘fix’ caused outrage because it was so clumsy that even the ‘top’, most expensive schools suffered from cuts in marks.

When education is a commodity that can be bought by spending on small class sizes and individual tutoring, and when so much depends on the outcome of examinations we can expect political turbulence every summer when the results are published.

• Let’s inspect where the money goes

The claim to ‘the most inspections at one time’ in Britain was made in a Times Educational Supplement report about ‘An inspector watching a training inspector watching a national vocational qualification (NVQ) assessor who was being observed by the internal verifier whose systems were being checked by the external verifier during a Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) spot check’. One teacher teaching an NVQ student was being observed at this five-to-one ratio.

The approximately £250,000-a-year wage bill for these inspectors (the cost of ten teachers) is a price worth paying as far as this Labour government is concerned. The inspectors are there to police the rationing of education rationing which exists for those pupils whose parents cannot afford to buy it from the private sector. Sometimes, however, the best laid plans go wrong.

• What price education?

A general feeling of approval and support for education by the community as a whole is a cultural value that cannot be purchased by money alone. It is a value and view that is to be found in Cuba where they are moving steadily but determinedly towards the goal of a university level education for all as a right. This costs energy, time and resources, and in the last two years thousands of Cuban children, parents and teachers made the decision to mobilise to construct new classrooms and facilities to reduce primary class size to 1:20 pupils. Cuba spends 11.4% of its GDP on education and, as a result of the people’s commitment, is heading to a top place in education worldwide.

In international test results published by UNESCO and OECD (the top 26 industrialised countries), for maths at Third Grade, Cuba achieved a top rate of 78.2%, the United States 54.6% and England and Wales; 40.2%. In Fourth Grade Maths, Cuba achieved 81.6%, the United States 70.3% and England and Wales 53.2%.

In contrast to Cuba, Britain is proportionately spending less and less on education – 4.8% of GDP in 2000-2001, down from a high of 6.4% in 1974-75. At the same time the social value of schooling has been reduced to scoring in the examination league tables. The number of students getting examination passes has grown but so has the number of young people who are stressed and disaffected by schools where the only value is passing tests. For the bottom 23% of the school population who leave without any qualifications the prospects are a grim succession of minimum wage jobs without benefits and rights.

• May we touch your child?

Yet another business opportunity has blossomed as an offshoot from education recently. The company Capita, ever eager to grab profits, provides services for the Criminal Records Bureau in a £400 million ten-year contract with the Home Office. Checks on the sex offenders register for 8,000 new teachers before starting in schools this year were demanded by government ministers in a kneejerk reaction to the murders of two school girls. Thousands of pupils had to be sent home because the checks were not completed in time for the start of the new term. This lock-out thrust children into far greater dangers. In 2001-2002, 218 children under 16 died in road accidents and 38,000 were injured.

The sleazy interest of the media in child murder promoted coach trips to Soham graveyard where fish and chips were eaten and photographs taken. This prurience enters the pores of society and destroys social relationships. Teachers tell of pupils demanding to see proof they have passed the sex offender check. Parents are considering silicone chip implants in their children for 24-hour monitoring. And primary schools send letters home asking parents for permission, should their child be hurt or distressed, to place a comforting arm around the shoulder.

Susan Davidson


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