Grown-ups should be ashamed of what school exam have become

by | 11 Aug 2023

We've taken a system of helping pupils to measure their success and turned it into an intensely political football, kicked around for political advantage. It is the kids who are suffering because of our pettiness.

Of all the annual political circuses, the one that leaves the sourest taste in my mouth is exam results week. Yes it’s lovely to see all the excited pupils who got what they needed enthusiastic about the rest of their lives, but increasingly I find the exercise as a whole is oddly distasteful.

Why? Because this is a dual process – it’s teachers marking kids’ exams and it is politician marking their own exams. Where they clash, a bunch of kids are harmed. And even where they don’t clash, the whole rigmarole is now a serious issue for the wellbeing of children. It is time we think again about exams.

First, what do I mean by politicians marking their own homework? This has kind of always been the case, but it is a process which became highly politicised from the moment former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced (back in 2016) that education (and in particular the ‘attainment gap’ between the wealthiest and poorest students) was her defining mission.

When a politician says they are making any given issue a defining matter on which they expect ultimately to be judged, more often bad things happen than good things, especially if the politician’s statement preceded the politicians thinking it through.

Because it is phenomenally difficult to close the attainment gap in a meaningful way, particularly if you limit yourself to schools policy. That’s because the differential attainment of children has much, much more to do with social conditions than anything the school does. Differential rates of attainment are the symptom of social failure, not the cause. It’s all about poverty.

So if you say you’re going to close the attainment gap, you need to be ready to undertake a serious and very large-scale programme of poverty reduction. That is to say you need to undertake major economic reform and invest heavily in housing, social work and policing (among other things). If you constrain yourself to education policy, you absolutely will fail.

The problem comes through the chain of control which politicians have over exam results. The idea that the process for aggregating results into a kind of single ‘national result’ (that can generate headlines like ‘pass rate up, attainment gap down’) is a purely technical matter was rather obliterated during the pandemic.

Those of us who worked in education were always aware of this (my time working for the universities was punctuated annually by the issuing of exam results, including the marking disaster of 2001 which required me to get a major briefing on how the system works), but the revelation that politicians were having discussions about exam result outcomes in the run up to issuing them rather gave the game away.

Exams are now ‘political tokens’ as much as they are ‘pupil attainment assessments’

You can find out how it all works in more detail here, but basically every year there is a ‘normalisation’ process which alters the boundaries of what score you need to get in each subject to cross the threshold to the next grade (C to B, B to A). By adjusting the boundaries you can adjust the number of students getting each qualification.

And since you don’t do that until after the exam marking is in, you are specifically adjusting marking to achieve a given outcome. Nominally this outcome is technical – to ensure annual variations in the difficulty of exam questions doesn’t alter the broad pattern. But in reality if a politician wants to decide their own exam results, they can.

(The marking agency, the SQA, should technically tell the politician to beat it, but we know they don’t. That’s why when it was announced that the SQA would be abolished and replaced, it was clear that effectively no such thing would happen. It’s a cosy deal – politicians protect staff, staff protect politicians.)

During the pandemic, no-one could pretend any more. There were no exam results to work on so the process became a process of ‘normalisation based on teacher assessment’. Which is to say it was all but made up – and when it didn’t produce the ‘right’ results it was made up again in a different way.

At this point I need to be very clear what I mean by ‘made up’. I’m not saying that teacher assessment is flawed – quite the contrary. I mean that politicised normalisation of those assessments is. A teacher says ‘this is how good my pupil is’ and then a politician effectively says ‘nope, they’ve been too generous and this doesn’t look credible’ or ‘they been too tough and my constituents will be pissed off’. Both of these are judgement calls.

The result is that the big majority of pupils really do get the grades they deserve. It’s the marginal cases who suffer. It’s the ones on either side of a grade threshold who are either pushed up or pushed down who are impacted, and those who are pushed down can be impacted for the rest of their lives.

I knew what last year’s exam results would look like before they were announced, and I knew it again this year. I would have placed a money bet on this year’s result being ‘the sweet spot of not as good as during the pandemic when we abandoned exams and didn’t want to penalise the kids for it, but better than the last time we had exams in 2019’. Because that’s the story I’d expect a politician to want to tell.

To no surprise on my part, that’s exactly what we got. Did the politicians direct this, did officials simply deliver what they thought the politicians want or is this the result we’d have got anyway? I don’t know. That’s the point.

The problem with all of this is that it shows the problem with all of this – exams are now ‘political tokens’ as much as they are ‘pupil attainment assessments’. Mid-market tabloids like the Mail and the Express think good news is their readers’ grandchildren (mostly comparatively affluent) maintaining their advantage in getting university places.

Meanwhile liberal newspapers or those just wanting to attack the government will report failures in closing the attainment gap. And then politicians love photogenic pupils and are always trying to link themselves personally to the positive outcomes of pupils. Exam results are highly political. In fact they’re intensely political.

They’re children; it is our job to look after them, not fuck them up for our short-term convenience

The result of all of this is that the weight of exams seems to have grown and grown since I was at school. Yes we sat exam results, but many fewer of us went to university and it just didn’t feel like that dog-eat-dog situation we have just now where not getting into university is seen as a disaster for kids.

So we sat exams with the nerves that come from exams, but I can’t remember any of my fellow pupils collapsing under the pressure and needing mental health support because of exam pressure. (I think I can recall one panic attack, but the girl was supported, calmed down and completed the exam, and since she was in my class the following year, it seems to work out).

This has now changed, partly because of the nature of the labour market, partly because of the massive changes in higher education, and partly because of the sheer negative impact of the politicisation of exams.

I absolutely abhor this. I’m all for pupils learning to deal with a bit of stress based on them facing mild, manageable stress during their school careers – but intense stress creates cortisol, the stress hormone which is known to permanently damage children’s brains. Overly-stressed kids grow up to become slightly damaged adults who have a horrible memory of a time that is supposed to be a childhood.

There are easy solutions to this (other countries have found them) – but there are quite a few possible solutions, from how we handle exams to who has to sit them and when right onwards to getting rid of them altogether. All of these are entirely viable

But as I discovered as our Education Group developed the work for Sorted, educationalists who want the same outcomes can have quite strongly different views about how to get there. Worse, all of them dread more educational reorganisation (given the pigs’ ear that has been made of Curriculum for Excellence). Most people want change, but we don’t have a change agenda yet (other than that set out in Sorted and bits and pieces of work by others).

Whatever the outcome, we need to take this problem seriously because it is having a negative impact on entire generations of young people who are being forced into a kind of unnecessary gladiatorial combat with each other for the sake of newspaper editors and politicians.

Having your Geography Higher result come out as a C when you were hoping for a B should always be a disappointment for a child – but it should just never be a disaster. Approaching exams should just not create a spike in the need for acute mental health support in schools. Somehow we have manufactured a system with these as component parts.

As adults – parents, grandparents, journalists, politicians and educationalists – we should be ashamed of ourselves about this. They’re children; it is our job to look after them, not fuck them up for our short-term convenience.

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