If we are to rethink assessment, we also need to rethink the society that education prepares us for

How the exam system reinforces inequalities inherent in the values system of our country

Sammy Wright Vice Principal at Southmoor Academy in Sunderland, Lead for Schools & HE at the Social Mobility Commission

There is a logic to exams. Yes, you can argue about why it should all come down to one day, and about how different students have very different contexts to their achievements. But if we are training someone to be a chemist, then the things they know about chemistry are the most important thing we need to measure. It doesn’t really matter to us whether they crammed with the aid of a £120-an-hour tutor, or revised with flashcards taped to the back of the counter while working their part-time job – they need to know their stuff.

Only, the great lie of the education system in Britain is that we are all, metaphorically speaking, training to be chemists. In fact, for most students, the subjects they take – certainly at GCSE, and often at A level – are not directly involved in any of their later work environments. Instead of a measure of specific skills and knowledge, the exams and the grades that follow are taken to mean indicators of generalised aptitude – hard work, study skills, thinking skills etc. And to judge this, context DOES matter.

The system is aware of this, up to a point. Progress – the distance travelled – and disadvantage are key elements of league tables used to judge schools. But there is a fascinating doublethink at play here.

Results en masse are a measure of the school, sure. But results on an individual level are a measure of the individual. A school that produces an A grade at A level out of a grade 4 at GCSE gets recognised as outstanding. But the student doesn’t get any credit for the extra effort they put in – in fact, in the eyes of many, they would simply have a slightly worse CV than their friend with excellent GCSE grades.

One might argue at this point that the curriculum matters, not just the effort. That irrespective of whether we are chemists, we ought to know some chemistry. And that would be right. But saying that something should be taught is not the same as saying it should be the subject of a high-stakes assessment.

All of which is really asking the biggest question of all – what do we actually think the purpose of school is? 

On the most pragmatic level, the answer is to prepare people to become functioning members of society. 

But what does society need out of us? 

Well, it needs us to be good – morally good. Compliant with the law, compassionate and caring, willing to think about others and to countenance other viewpoints. It also needs us to be skilled – to be economically productive, to be intellectually curious, to be equipped with good judgement and lateral thinking.

Uncomfortably, though, society as it is currently set up also requires some of us to fail.

Fail is a loaded term. We can rightly argue, post-Covid, that to be a delivery driver or a cleaner is to be a key part of society and should be seen as no failure. But that would be to ignore the values inherent in our wage structure, our cultural hierarchy and our education system. 

Failure is the other, unspoken logic of exams. In a school, pupils are told, clearly and unmistakeably, that to get your GCSE grades will give you a better life. To not get them will impair your life. They are explicitly given the language of pass or fail. 

Of course every kid can’t receive an A grade. But there is a kind of mass gaslighting going on, whereby we tell kids to try their hardest, and tell them that they can do it, and only afterwards do we admit that we only meant that for the top sets.

Not everyone can be a chemist. And, in fact, if everyone was a chemist, we’d all die in dirty, unfurnished squalor.

Some argue that we need the idea of pass or fail because the act of competition is the thing that makes us better. If everyone got a prize, we’d all just saunter to the finish line. We need to winnow out the chaff. And this is, of course, correct – if the race was fair. And if, by winnowing out the chaff, we really did mean discarding the dried husks of wheat seeds, rather than writing off the futures of children.

What happens in reality is that we run a race with starting points determined by socio-economic background. No doubt some of those starting far back are capable of catching up, but ironically, the brighter they are, the more likely it is that they spot that the system is rigged against them and decide to invest their efforts into a more achievable goal like boosting their social capital by telling the teacher to piss off.

And equally destructively, those at the front, starting out with all the advantages, finish the race with an inflated sense of their own self-worth – with the very brightest of them all at risk of the worst outcome, a belief that they can cruise through life with little effort and blag the most intransigent problems. 

So what do we do?

There are many suggestions for how we might rethink our education system. Some have merit. But, unfortunately, the race will never be fair while the outcomes are so unequal. One of the biggest, and most rarely stated problems we face as an education establishment and as a country, is the mismatch between what we promise young people and what we offer them. It is no coincidence that the communities where schools have the greatest difficulties are also the communities where there are no jobs and no hope. 

There is a simple truth, borne out by the Social Mobility Commission’s research – schools on their own cannot fix this. Children growing up in poverty will be just as traumatized, and just as unable to compete, if we replace one exam system with another. Families will continue to not engage with systems that imply their lives are lacking in value because of the perceived status of their jobs. And young people will remain alienated by the education system if all they see in it is a route to a world they know is closed to them.

If we are rethinking education, we also need to rethink the society that education prepares us for. 

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