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Dr JOANNA WILLIAMS: A pernicious class divide

Aug 11, 2021

A pernicious class divide: It’s an outrage that this year’s A-level grades have served to entrench the gulf between state and private schools, writes Dr JOANNA WILLIAMS, a teacher who has worked in both

Dr Joanna Williams (pictured) said: ‘Even allowing for the unprecedented circumstances of a global pandemic and its impact on schooling, the glut of top grades — especially in the private sector —exposes an education system that has lost much of its rigour and integrity’

Yesterday’s record-breaking A-level results were a good reason to celebrate for tens of thousands of youngsters.

I have the utmost sympathy for the upheaval that students have experienced over the past two years. They have had their lives unimaginably disrupted; they’ve missed their friends and social activities, and their mental health has suffered.

When schools had to close, remote learning was at best alienating, and at worst non-existent.

So if the outcome of all this is that many have emerged with better grades than they might otherwise have got, some may argue that it’s the least they deserve.

However, I beg to differ. I see it as a betrayal of pupils that has served to exacerbate inequalities rather than improving the life chances of the most disadvantaged.

Let me explain. Even allowing for the unprecedented circumstances of a global pandemic and its impact on schooling, the glut of top grades — especially in the private sector —exposes an education system that has lost much of its rigour and integrity.

Rhetoric

And what was once an agent of social mobility is increasingly becoming a bulwark of division and privilege that makes a mockery both of Boris Johnson’s pledge to ‘level up’ the country and of the Left-wing teaching unions’ pretensions to care about equality.

The figures are staggering. In the absence of exams, this year’s results are based on teachers’ assessments which have fuelled grade inflation on an epic scale.

Almost 45 per cent of grades were A or A*. Before the pandemic, only a quarter of grades were in the top two brackets.

Meanwhile, the overall pass rate reached almost 100 per cent.

But what alarms me most is the growing chasm between the private and state sectors.

It is now obvious that a key, tragic legacy of Covid has been to tighten the grip of independent schools on the higher echelons of the A-level system.

It is now obvious that a key, tragic legacy of Covid has been to tighten the grip of independent schools on the higher echelons of the A-level system (stock image)

Two years ago, when exams were last held, around 44 per cent of private pupils gained A or A* grades. It now stands at 70.1 per cent whereas the figure for state schools is around 40 per cent — a reflection of a grossly imbalanced approach that rewards those from the most affluent backgrounds.

Incredibly, this is a change in which the key players — including the Government, Whitehall, the local authorities, the policy-makers and the teaching unions — have colluded despite their earnest rhetoric about social inclusion.

Indeed, it is now frowned upon by officialdom to question any aspect of the A‑level bonanza. Criticism of results is invariably portrayed as an attack on the hard work of pupils. But such a stance is absurd.

The biggest losers from the relentless devaluation of A‑levels are the pupils themselves, who find their achievements questioned and their futures uncertain.

As the EDSK think tank put it yesterday: ‘There is now a serious risk that this year’s grades are simply meaningless in the eyes of employers and universities.’

Just as wrong-headed is, I believe, the argument that this summer’s exam-free approach was the only possible choice.

If necessary, with a little imagination and creativity, exams could have been held online. After all, England’s schools went back on March 8 which gave exam boards plenty of time to have developed innovative testing.

The suspicion must be that the teaching unions and the political Left actually welcomed the temporary abolition of exams, partly because of their ideological objection to any form of testing which they characterise as stressful and reactionary.

Moreover, the suspension of exams meant that teachers’ quality of engagement with pupils was not subjected to outside scrutiny. In effect, the professionals took temporary charge of their own domain.

Even now it is not clear that exams will return next year, while grade inflation is certainly here to stay. It is easy to push the proportion of top grades to 45 per cent, far harder to push them back down to their previous 25 per cent threshold.

So, the consequence of this bizarre year has been to entrench the social divide and reinforce the ascendancy of private schools.

The unions like to wail about ‘unconscious bias’, but the current system which they so eagerly support has been an aggressive catalyst for perpetuating unfairness.

If necessary, with a little imagination and creativity, exams could have been held online. After all, England’s schools went back on March 8 which gave exam boards plenty of time to have developed innovative testing (stock image)

Disadvantaged

As the mother of a daughter at a state school, I am only too aware of this gap.

When her school closed after the start of the first lockdown, she was given only vague instructions on how to carry on with lessons through technology. There was no proper structure to each day or Zoom-teaching or homework.

When I asked the school why the instructions were so limited in scope, I was told that too intensive an approach would hurt those pupils who did not have access to the internet at home.

While I have every sympathy for those pupils — and laud the Mail’s Computers for Kids campaign which so improved access for disadvantaged youngsters — I fail to understand why they could not have been accommodated at schools kept open for children of key workers.

For my daughter, the lack of leadership and guidance from her school had a profound effect. One day, when she was still in bed at noon, I told her to get up. ‘Why?’ was her monosyllabic response — to which I did not have an answer.

While I have every sympathy for those pupils — and laud the Mail’s Computers for Kids campaign which so improved access for disadvantaged youngsters — I fail to understand why they could not have been accommodated at schools kept open for children of key workers (stock image)

The contrast with the work ethos of private schools could not have been greater. I know from what friends have told me that their children were expected to be in front of their computers at 8.30 in the morning in full school uniform, ready for registration.

The timetable of the usual school day would be followed virtually, including all the standard classes and the setting of homework.

Unlike pupils at many state schools, most private pupils were able to follow the curriculum and end up, in educational terms, pretty much where they would have been if Covid had not happened.

Misery

This mirrors the deep divide that has always existed between the private and state sectors. While the Left puts all the blame on ‘lack of resources’, that is only one part of the story.

Having taught in private schools myself, I know that a host of other factors account for the differences we are seeing, such as stronger discipline, smaller class sizes and higher expectations.

Moreover, in my experience parents with offspring at private schools tend to be far more demanding, based on the belief that their payment of hefty fees gives them the right to question and challenge the staff’s actions.

‘Sharp elbows’ may be an unpleasant phrase but it helps to create a competitive environment where excellence is sought.

In my experience parents with offspring at private schools tend to be far more demanding, based on the belief that their payment of hefty fees gives them the right to question and challenge the staff’s actions (stock image)

I am not arguing for one moment that the private sector should be pulled down to the level of the state system — exactly the opposite.

State schools should be trying to reach the same standards, driven by higher expectations and more effective teaching methods.

Paradoxically, for all the misery it has inflicted, the pandemic may have performed one public service by throwing the gap between the two sectors into such sharp relief.

Even amid rampant grade inflation, it is obvious that the failing culture of the state needs to change.

For the sake of future generations and our national interests in a highly competitive world, widespread reform in the state sector is the only solution.

  • Joanna Williams is a former university lecturer and teacher at both state and private schools, and serves as director of the think tank Cieo.

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