The A-Level Fiasco

Updated: Aug 28, 2020

The A-Level Crisis Show Our Education System is Failing

A-level results day this year has caused chaos for thousands of young people, throwing their lives into limbo as their futures are decided by government policy. Originally the final A-Level results were decided by an algorithm, a process which left many students receiving grades well below what their teachers were expecting them to achieve. In particular, the algorithm was found to have negatively affected students from disadvantaged backgrounds; students from lower socio-economic backgrounds were most likely to have their grades downgraded by the algorithm used by Ofqual. As well the attainment gap between students on free-school meals and those who are not, increased, and those who attend private school benefited the most from the standardisation model employed by Ofqual. Despite a government U-turn which has allowed students to take their teacher assessed grades as their final A-Level results and the obvious unique difficulties the pandemic has caused in qualification assessment, this debacle points to a bigger problem within education: that the crisis has awoken a debate around the value of exams in measuring academic performance, along with the effects of an exam-based education system on students.

Research by GL Assessment carried out by YouGov in 2018 found that 90% of teachers surveyed believe that schools are forcing teachers to focus on exam content, ignoring wider educational topics. The problem occurs from a very early age at primary school level, where teaching becomes focused on KS2 SATs. Furthermore, a vast majority of teacher’s surveyed (in 2018) believed the prioritization of exams has a detrimental consequence on student’s education, both affecting their academic abilities as well as leaving them less prepared for life after school. The overwhelming majority of teachers from this survey (92%) concluded that the intense focus of education on exams is a result of the pressure on schools to deliver satisfactory exam results.

This highlights a systemic problem within education in the UK: the marketisation of the education system. As parents are given the choice in deciding where their children are educated, schools are forces to compete and so, in a society where exam success is seen as vitally important, schools are forced to concentrate on the exam curriculum. Schools need to achieve highly in exams and so the wider curriculum is abandoned to pursue this success. League tables have become key to this marketized education system as schools vie with each other for top spot, and so the understanding of education is streamlined to relate to exam success only. The problem continues in the higher education system where the introduction of tuition fees turned the university system into a free market where universities compete to attract students to their courses. Universities are expected to operate as a public good, enhancing and enriching society by encouraging the exchange of ideas. However, in the same manner as schools, universities are now forced to show their value for money by advertising themselves purely on their ability to get students high grades. As in schools, universities concentrate on teaching to exams, abandoning any broader sense in the value of education. Therefore, the notion of education as a value in and of itself – something that benefits society as whole in way that can’t be measured by statistics – no longer exists. The focus on exams driven by the marketisation of education has unhealthy effects on both students and teachers. In the university sector staff have taken strike action against pay, pensions and job insecurity, with the marketisation of universities at the centre of this dispute. Universities are attempting to invest more in the ‘quality of their service’ through both the intensification of workloads for staff and by creating revenue surpluses, done via the suppression of staff wages which can then be reinvested into further university development. Staff wages have reduced as percentage of university costs, whilst during the same time period (2008-18) real term pay has decreased by 28%. For students, the emphasis on exam causes stress and mental health issues. More than 10% of parents with children 13 or over from a Mumsnet Survey found that exam pressure had affected their child’s wellbeing and 9% said their children had taken healthcare support as a result of exams. This indicates how our exam focused education system has negative impacts on both educators and students.

Studying education practices of other countries exemplifies evident problems within our own education system. In Finland, children do not start school till the age of 7 (in comparison to 5 in the UK) as it is argued that children haven’t fully developed yet to begin school. Instead they are encouraged to learn and develop social skills through playtime. Life experience for Finish children compared to British is also vastly different once they start school; there is only one mandatory test which comes at the end of high school for vocational subjects. Teachers are left with more freedom in the classroom as the lack of exams means they can teach a broader curriculum. Finland presents an example of a society where education is viewed as a social good, which heavily contrasts with the exams-based system we have in the UK – a system that limits the scope of what education can provide for young people.

In conclusion, the A Level crisis has underlined the problems within the education system in the UK: it is a system focused on exams which ignores the greater value education can have and has detrimental effects on both students and teachers. We need to ask ourselves what the value of education is and what we should demand from our education system, for the current system is failing teachers, students and society as a whole.

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