Between 16 May and 29 June, students in Britain’s schools will write around 16 million exam papers. A scurry of marking will then, in August, produce a stream of gradings, which will be used to exert market-type discipline on students, teachers, and schools.
Notionally exams are a way to test knowledge and skills. Exams which really do that, and certify people as competent to be surgeons or surveyors, make sense. But the school exams are only the basis for a vast sorting exercise.
Some students will get good enough grades in GCSE to study A level subjects which will get them into “good” universities: others will be branded failures. Some A level students will get into “good” universities; others will fail. Some schools will score well in the league tables, others will fail. Some teachers will pass their “performance management”, heavily based on exam scores, others will fail.
Increasingly, the whole education system is geared to this exercise in market-type discipline. The drive of the Tories’ Education White Paper is to gear it even more that way, to increase competition, insecurity, and stereotyped measurement. The Tories have retreated from their extravagant plan for blanket compulsion on every school to become an “academy” — directly government-funded, outside local democratic control, outside agreed national terms and conditions, geared to head-teacher “entrepreneurship”. But they still want to go in that direction.
In a careful report last year, commissioned by the National Union of Teachers, education expert Merryn Hutchings wrote: “Children and young people are suffering from increasingly high levels of school-related anxiety and stress, disaffection and mental health problems. This is caused by increased pressure from tests and exams; greater awareness at younger ages of their own ‘failure’...
“The increase in diagnosis of ADHD has been shown to be linked to the increase in high stakes testing... some children are being diagnosed and medicated because the school environment has become less suitable for them, allowing less movement and practical work, and requiring them to sit still for long periods.
“Increasingly, children and young people see the main purpose of schooling as gaining qualifications, because this is what schools focus on. This trend has been widely deplored, including by universities and employers, who have argued that the current exam system does not prepare children for life beyond school”.
Hutchings concluded: “Schools are not yet all exam factories, but if the current policies continue, this is what they will become”.
Even big-business bosses criticise the system. John Cridland, director of the bosses’ confederation CBI, last year called for GCSEs to be abolished. “The only purpose they serve now is to allow measurement of schools through league tables”.
The Institute of Directors, in a report on 18 April, said that schools must be shifted from being “‘exam factories’ that primarily test students’ ability to recall facts and apply standardised methods, two things computers do much better than humans”. And Natasha Devon, sacked by the government on 4 May from the figleaf post of “mental health champion” because she is too forthright, has denounced “a culture of testing and academic pressure detrimental to mental health, a fiercely competitive culture in schools”, and a society of social inequality where “fundamental values are set not by kindness but by consumerism”.
The system in Britain, even now, before the Tories’ new plans, exceeds other countries’ in the vehemence of its exam obsession. The exam obsession is not, however, just a matter of the competitive obsessions of Blairites and Tories. It has a capitalist logic. This is about the production of labour-power.
Unlike other branches of production, that branch cannot directly sell its products and be market-regulated that way. Fumblingly, capitalist governments have evolved schemes of market-like discipline, which flow over into actual markets. Thus, the exam system is about students “buying”, through exam grades, a place at a “good university”. And that in turn, almost regardless of what knowledge the students retain or don’t retain from their university studies, “buys” them a good chance of a well-paid job.
The Social Mobility Commission, in its 2014 report, found that only 10 per cent of the top graduate employers target more than 30 universities to recruit new workers, out of a total of nearer 120. That’s not because you learn nothing at the other 90 universities. It is because the employers base recruitment much more on ability and willingness to jump through hoops - as evidenced by getting to and through a “good” university — than on whatever particular knowledge students have crammed into their heads to pass exams.
For many jobs, they insist you’ve passed university exams, but don’t care in what, or whether you retain what you crammed for the exam. The “peformance” of the exam is what matters, not the intellectual content. When Microsoft, for example, recruits graduates, it asks for: “2:1 or higher in any relevant discipline”. PriceWaterhouseCooper wants those with “2:1 or above in any degree discipline”. Over 200,000 of the average cohort of about half a million students in British universities are studying social sciences, humanities, psychology, arts, usually with little specific relevance to their subsequent jobs. Some 80,000 are studying “business”, but what’s important about business courses, for jobs, is just that they “sort” some people into the category of having got through university rather than anything they teach.
Research in the USA has found that more than one in three university students graduates with no improvement in writing and analytical skills. Business students learn least. 89% of surveyed employers said that they prefer students from what the USA calls “liberal arts” to business graduates.
At the other end, academy chains and “entrepreneurial” head teachers trade on student exam grades for success to get government funds. The recent exposure of Liam Nolan shows how that segues into regular capitalist market economics and profit-grabbing. Nolan spoke at Tory party conference as Michael Gove’s star head teacher. David Cameron personally praised him. He became “CEO” of an expanding chain of academies. Now Nolan has been forced to resign because “his” academies were paying large sums, without contracts, to a company, Nexus Schools Ltd, which in turn paid cash to him, on top of his declared salary, through a business of which he was the sole director.
The relentless pseudo-market pressure squeezes out real education, creativity, imagination, life, from students and teachers alike. Many subjects are marginalised. Others, like mathematics, are reduced to stereotyped mechanical procedures, because those are easy material for setting exams and marking them cheaply. The great 20th century mathematician David Hilbert famously remarked of a student who gave up maths in order to become a poet: “Good. He did not have enough imagination to become a mathematician”. But the exam boards’ thin substitute for maths is almost imagination-free.
Tony Blair said: “Education, education, education!” He meant: “Exams, exams, exams!” The Tories say: “Marketise, marketise, marketise”. The fight against the Education White Paper should become a springboard for a fight for real education, without exams, grades, and league tables.
Battle on academies is not over!
The existing legislation around academies and the government’s revised proposals still amount to a threat to make all schools academies. These include:
• Every single school rated “inadequate” by Ofsted will be turned into an academy
• Coasting schools will be put on a “notice to improve”. “Coasting” will be based on data on pupil progress (and in primary schools attainment) over a three year period.
• All schools in a Local Authority will be forced to convert if (a) the number of academy schools in that area reaches a “critical mass” which means that the LA can no longer viably support its remaining schools or (b) “where the LA consistently fails to meet a minimum performance threshold across its schools”.
• DfE will continue to encourage “good” schools to convert. It is vital, therefore, that the campaign continues with the same energy and drive. To oppose as many individual conversions as possible and what the academy plan means for our school system. To argue for a different system. Every school that converts brings all the other schools in its area closer to that “critical mass” and forcing all schools to convert. A decision by a school to become an academy is not just a matter for that school, its pupils, parents and staff.
We also need to press Labour local authorities to take a harder line on academy proposals. They can and should put more obstacles in the way, promote themselves as the most effective school improvement support service, advocate for all children and under no circumstances promote academy conversions.