Issue 270: 2021 03 11: Education

11 March 2021


Milking the pool.

By John Watson

Of course it’s a damn fool system.  The idea that assessment by teachers should take the place of exams in determining university admissions founders on the awkward fact that most teachers are also human beings.  Many of them splendid ones, of course, and probably, as a whole, well above the national average of honesty, integrity, perceptiveness and all the rest.  Nonetheless the pressures on them, the will to see their pupils succeed, pressure from the pupils themselves and also from their parents are bound, in many cases, to affect the grades they give.  The more exacting and tougher the teacher, the less influenced they will be by these factors and so the lower the grades which will be awarded.  The better the school, the lower the grades.  That hardly sounds a sensible system.

Still, needs must when the devil drives and Covid is a devil which has driven us all to some very odd places.  The Department for Education has not had a good pandemic as it has wrestled with uncertainties on when schools could go back and the technicalities of home teaching.  Its handling of the question of how to replace exams has been uncertain and flawed by U-turns as pressure has been exerted by press, academia and the teaching profession.  It has become a commentators’ punchbag and the political leadership of the department has not looked strong.  No doubt we will find the same uncertainty when we move on to the bigger issue.  How should children be assessed in the post Covid world, when we finally get there?

Advocates for the various forms of assessment talk much of fairness and social mobility.  Reducing the reliance on exams is unfair on those whose work is of A* quality.  Continuous assessment is fairer on those who do not do well in exams.  Adjustments must be made for those from poorer households to see they get their fair share of places, etc, etc, etc.

That may all be true enough but focusing on fairness and mobility misses the central point, perhaps the main reason why we bother to educate children at all.  As a small overpopulated country we need to live by our wits and if we are to maintain a reasonable standard of living it is important that our public (whether they work in industry, the universities, hospitals, libraries, schools, banks, professions, public services or anything else) should be well-educated and properly intellectually trained.  A modern successful nation needs a highly educated citizenry if it is to succeed.  That means that rather than looking at education primarily in terms of what it offers to the children we should see it as a way of maximising the benefits which we extract from our talent pool.

To do that we need to begin by targeting resources on those most able to make use of them and that goes straight to the heart of university admissions.  It does not, however, mean relying solely on exams because success there is not always a reliable guide to potential.  Some children underperform in the examination room.  Others over perform.  Some are held back by poor quality schools.  Others are pushed forward by particularly good teaching.  Yes, exams have the great advantage that they provide a stable and reliable comparator but they are a blunt instrument and do not on their own always give a fair picture of potential, the key quality when a university place is at stake.  A more holistic approach is therefore needed with evidence of exam results being augmented by interviews, teachers’ assessment and the rest.

So far so relatively uncontentious, but extracting the best from the talent pool is not just a question selecting the right candidates for university.  By then it is often too late.  Talent needs to be nurtured from a far earlier stage and, viewed from the perspective of national demand, the challenge is how to exploit the talent of the pool to maximise the quality of the overall output.

We have two quite separate education systems in the country.  There is the state system and the private system and, on the evidence of university admissions, the second is more successful.  One reason for that is that it is better resourced but there are other factors at play as well.  Parents of children at private schools are likely to be more supportive of the school, no doubt reflecting the fact that they have paid fees for the child to be there.  Discipline in private schools is likely to be better, again because parents who pay fees expect to see their children taught in a disciplined classroom and will complain, or move the child to another school, if they are not.  The schools are more ambitious.  Many private schools teach Greek.  State schools do not.  As a subject it may not be of practical use later in life but it is undoubtedly difficult and it is difficult subjects which train the mind.

On the surface the last paragraph is all about money.  Pay money and your children will be taught with the best resources.  Pay money and that will make you more inclined to support your children’s education.  Pay money and the school will be more disciplined and ambitious.  Fee-paying schools are not however the only way in which these advantages can be obtained.  Many state schools boast supportive parents, discipline and ambition, but if you had been at university in the early 70s you would have found a very high proportion of children from grammar schools whose education had been just as good as that in the private sector.  Educate the most talented to the highest standard.  Not a bad mantra for an ambitious country.  Just look at the number of Prime Ministers they produced.

Of course the system had its faults.  The division at the 11 plus was unfair on those who were not exam orientated or who developed late.  Classifying children in such an overt manner had too much Brave New World about it for an egalitarian society.  But instead of addressing these issues by adjustments (say allowing a more holistic admission system, perhaps allowing people to move in and out of grammar schooling at different ages), the government of John Major abolished the whole idea of selection.  Yes, it was a grand gesture.  Yes, it protected less able children and avoided a social division.  But in terms of the national interest it was a colossal act of self harm.  Send the able but diffident child to a rough school and let it sink there.  Take away the ladder by which the clever working class child can reach the top table and then congratulate yourself on your liberal instincts.  Yuck!

photo: Alison Wood (Creative Commons)

Much water has flowed under the bridge and it is now far too late to turn back to the past, but in the next rubber of the education game the priority should go back to producing top quality product from talent wherever that talent may arise.  That may involve borrowing ideas from the private sector, from the grammar schools and from overseas systems.  It may involve holistic admissions, schools with limited parental contributions, or more or less exams, but it would not be right to make the idea of fairness the dominant consideration.  It is important certainly but in terms of what contributes to public prosperity it runs second, behind outcome.


Cover page photo: Alison Wood (Creative Commons).

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