The pandemic has exacerbated old arguments about the education system.
Who among us, no matter how valetudinarian, cannot recall the distinctive aromas of pencil shavings, the leather of recently purchased school shoes, and the fresh vinyl of a new satchel? The three little words, back to school, have, since around the time Flashman began beating the crap out of Tom Brown, expressed the notion not simply of a return to an institution of education after a prolonged break, but a resurrection of all that is right, proper and productive in the nation.
So deeply is this process inscribed in the collective consciousness – and re-imprinted each September in those of us with children of school age – that we all take stock at this time, and mentally adjust ourselves once more to the rigours of the workplace, with its own beneficent Dr Arnolds and bullying Flashmans. Except that this year the pandemic has turned those three little words into a sort of shibboleth: one which is only being mouthed with any true conviction by the titular headmaster of our alma mater, Britannia, and his senior masters and mistresses.
The decision early on in the pandemic to cancel A-level and GCSE exams for this year effectively applied a match to the touch paper attached to the house of cards which is British education. We’ve been watching it burn ever since. My youngest son, realising he would be able to take up his foundation place at art school if he received his predicted A-level grades, took to his bed – literally as well as figuratively – in March, and it’s been difficult to rouse him since. My second youngest son, in his first year at university, experienced a similar deflation: without the need to write essays or take exams in order to progress to his second year, what was the point?
The difficulties the government and its cheerleaders have had getting pupils to go back to school this week have been compounded by voices being raised in the higher and further education sectors, warning of universities and colleges becoming the new incubators of the virus as we move towards winter. But really, Covid-19 is less to blame for this new normal than all the snafus which have preceded it: the implementation of the Brown reforms in higher education has now fully dovetailed with the relentless drive for schools to cater to the labour market, such that teachers and lecturers find themselves teaching to the test. The ‘test’ being whether school students gain the required passes at GCSE and A-level to go on to university – and whether university students, in turn, gain sufficiently good degrees to get jobs.
The rates of grade inflation in the higher education sector have been estimated at something like 25% over the past decade, as second and third tier universities try and compensate their students for having to pay more for an inferior education by super-sizing their degree classification. It’s a process exactly to analogous to that by which confectioners shrink their chocolate bars but keep the price the same. Teaching to the test at secondary level endorses a system where assessments, increasingly, become divorced from real attainment – and are linked, rather, to the economic viability of the sector overall: insufficiently high A-level passes, and the whole system begins to break down, as the universities cannot fill their places; too high and we have the opposite problem. Add to this the non-arrival of that gravy train full of foreign students willing to pay three times as much as the British cash down, and we have the spectre of mass redundancies and even closures.
The solution to the problem has been along economic lines: Gavin Williamson has printed more A-levels and GCSEs, just as Rishi Sunak has committed to printing loads more money – and the end result is inflation in both cases. But while it might not matter that much – at least in the short term – if the pound in your pocket is devalued, fast forward 20 years and I suspect you’ll be mightily troubled if the doctor treating you never passed his biology A-level exam, or the structural engineer who helped design the bridge you drove over to on your way to the surgery, never in fact passed her maths one.
The whole miserable brouhaha over the rogue algorithm that deprived school students of their ‘rightful’ marks this year was cast – as British arguments about education almost always are – in a binary left-right mode, as if tinkering with exam results alone could somehow magically reconfigure our social and economic structure. But the truth surely is that at an intuitive level we can see right through this: pupils, parents and teachers alike have had all spring and summer to spend cultivating their learning. We could have had al fresco classrooms, nature rambles and other activities galore – but instead everyone monged out in front of the box, because their only idea for delivering education outside the classroom was via another screen. There was this, and the background realisation that in the year after we departed the European Union, most Britons’ blood didn’t quicken at the thought of contributing to the GDP of that algorithm of a nation: UK PLC.