Ahead of GCSE results on Thursday, the government has announced all A-level and GCSE marks will be based on teacher assessments rather than the controversial algorithm. It is a welcome U-turn, although it does little to address the underlying issue. This was always a clear-cut matter of class: private schools uniquely benefited from the statistical
Ahead of GCSE results on Thursday, the government has announced all A-level and GCSE marks will be based on teacher assessments rather than the controversial algorithm. It is a welcome U-turn, although it does little to address the underlying issue. This was always a clear-cut matter of class: private schools uniquely benefited from the statistical model used to replace A-levels last week, increasing the proportion of students achieving top grades – A* and A – twice as much as pupils at comprehensives.
You only have to see the heartbroken teenagers posting on social media to understand the pain of these past few days: working-class young people who had their dream future in front of them only to lose it because they live in the wrong postcode. These pupils deserved justice, the government is right to fix the system in England just as the devolved nations have pledged to.
But it would be a mistake to treat this debacle as a one-off mistake that can be solved with a better grade calculator. The scandal is simply a blown-up version of the reality we’ve long known: working-class kids work hard and too often get tossed away, while private-school families buy their way in.
In the year before the pandemic, the Sutton Trust found independent school pupils were seven times more likely to gain a place at Oxford or Cambridge than those in non-selective state schools, and more than twice as likely to take a place at Russell Group institutions. In 2018, another study found almost half of “clever but disadvantaged” students failed to secure top GCSE grades. Just 52% of the disadvantaged high achievers at primary school secured at least five A* and A grades in England, compared with 72% of their wealthier, equally clever, peers.
Far from being wrong, the infamous algorithm in many ways succeeded in replicating the socio-economic bias that has plagued the education system for centuries. Or to put it another way: the educational inequality laid bare by the government’s incompetence is not a shock. It is business as usual.
Just look at how the exam crisis is being discussed. The focus in much of the media has been on A* students missing out on a place at Oxbridge (perhaps in part because much of the media followed this route themselves) with barely any attention on working-class teenagers who hoped to go straight into employment or on the fact that the proportion of people awarded grade C and above fell most in deprived areas. Even the supposedly comforting claim that “exams don’t matter” is steeped in privilege. It is easy to say grades are irrelevant if you have parents with connections and a flat in London, but considerably harder if you’re at your local comp in a low-income town.
During the pandemic, we have seen the class divide in education play out in new ways. Nearly two-thirds of private schools already had platforms for online learning in place before lockdown, compared with just a quarter of the most poorly funded state schools. While the wealthy have had laptops and reliable broadband to keep learning, the poorest children haven’t even had breakfast.
Education at its best is a chance to access a new world but too often it’s a trap, one that perversely bestows a further leg-up to those already born high on the ladder and entrenches the hardship of those born disadvantaged. The problem has never simply been that England has a broken education system that confers unjust benefits to the 7% who go to private school, but also that the other 93% are fully aware of it. We accept it, even when it penalises our own children. We put it down as “one of those things”. It is not one of those things. It is a choice, and one we have every chance to wake up to. That an old Etonian prime minister is the one overseeing this latest scandal is a symbol that could not be less subtle.
The Labour party has offered a strangely muted response to the exam crisis so far, but it can turn this around by not only demanding justice for working-class pupils discriminated by the algorithm but also widening the conversation to the inequality of the education system itself. For example, the introduction of Russell Group quotas to ensure only 7% of places go to private school alumni is long overdue.
Inequality does not typically come with fanfare. It isn’t usually a headline-grabbing scandal or a resignation matter. It is constant, accepted, hardwired into society. The exam fiasco is a shameful mess for which the government must make amends. But next year’s working-class pupils will deserve a fairer system too. Let the outrage last.