Exams do not produce the level playing field that many people think

Time to devise an assessment system that doesn’t handicap our disadvantaged learners

Rachel Macfarlane Director of Education Services, Herts for Learning

As a headteacher, I worked relentlessly to ensure that my most disadvantaged learners scored as well as their more fortunate peers in tests and exams, from Early Years goals, to SATs, GCSEs and A levels. And so did my staff. Whilst preparation for exam success was by no means all we focused on – we devoted a lot of curriculum time to the growth of learning disposition and habits and to character development – we were pragmatic in our acceptance that what ‘mattered’ in terms of nationally recognised currency was top grades in terminal exams. And we were determined that our learners who faced particular barriers – SEND, economic hardship, mental health issues, chaotic home conditions, a disjointed education history – should not become part of the ‘forgotten third’ of young people judged to have failed at 16. For we knew all too well what that would do for their life chances: dented self-esteem, difficulty accessing higher education and securing well-paid and fulfilling career paths, reduced health, wealth and life expectancy.  

Yet in striving to ensure that there was no gap between the progress and attainment of our disadvantaged learners and the rest, we were aware that we were not preparing all our athletes for a fair race. Not only were some approaching the start line in far from peak condition, but they tended to be allocated the outside lanes, and the track ahead of them was considerably more contoured, dented and windy than the smooth asphalt course that the toned runners in the inside lanes sped along.

Why is this?

1. If you’re not in school, you can’t learn

Disadvantaged and vulnerable children have lower attendance rates. Malnourished children and those with disabilities and medical conditions are sick more frequently. Those living in multiple occupancy and/or crowded housing are more exposed to germs and viruses (as has been seen in the correlation between areas of economic hardship and covid spikes). Families in rented or local authority housing move accommodation more frequently, leading to lost learning days. With packed, content-heavy exam syllabuses, missed lessons lead to less developed schema, less secure knowledge and less honed skills. The disadvantaged are disproportionately affected by any absence from school; their peers are more likely to have access to IT devices and wifi connectivity at home and a private tutor or family member with the time and expertise to support with plugging gaps. To assess solely through terminal exams is particularly unfair, of course, in the midst of a pandemic when cohorts will have experienced varying degrees of educational disruption, with deprived areas likely to be hardest hit.

2. Exams are not as fair as you would think

It is argued that exams are the most impartial way of assessing learners as the risk of unconscious marker bias, which can impact BAME and those eligible for Pupil Premium, is reduced.  However, the myriad cultural references contained in exam papers across a wide range of subjects disadvantage those with less cultural capital, and the nuances of language in the rubric of exam papers trip up those who are not fluent speakers of English.

3. Disadvantage breeds disadvantage

The stress associated with sitting examinations is experienced disproportionately by disadvantaged learners, who are over-represented amongst those with social, emotional and mental health issues. This puts them at greater risk of failing to do themselves justice in high stakes testing. Again, the current pandemic has only exacerbated this. There has been a reduction in support for children at risk of neglect, abuse and exploitation and limited access to support systems such as social workers, counsellors and youth groups. The mental health of disadvantaged learners has been particularly impacted, through a combination of accelerated financial worries, inadequate home learning facilities and conditions, and less access to outdoor spaces and other facilities that boost wellbeing.

The inevitable consequences of a handicap

It is no wonder that, under our current examination system, so many of our disadvantaged learners fail. In 2019, only 45% of disadvantaged pupils in England achieved passes at level 4+ in English and maths at GCSE, compared with 72% of non-disadvantaged pupils. The EPI’s 2020 report announced that the attainment gap between those eligible for PP funding and their more affluent peers had expanded to 18.1 months (and 22 months for the persistently disadvantaged-  those eligible for FSM for 80% or more of their school life).

Our society is becoming more economically divided.  Child poverty, which stood at 4.2 million in March 2019 (according to the Child Poverty Action Group), is rising sharply. Even before the emergence of Covid 19, the UK’s child poverty figure was expected to reach 5.2 million by 2022. Just before lockdown, homelessness figures (provided by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government) were worryingly high and rising: 36,690 households were assessed as homeless between January and March 2020 and on 31st March 2020 the number of households in temporary housing was 93,000, up 9.4% on March 2019.

It is time to explore other forms of assessment and there are a number worth looking at on this site.

It looks inevitable that in coming years even more of the runners turning up will be out of condition or carrying injuries. The least we can do is to ensure that they are allocated a lane that gives them a fair chance to show what they are capable of achieving.

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