Even over the grainy zoom call with my mum – an A-Level psychology teacher – I can’t help but notice the exhaustion in her face and voice. It is always difficult to maintain momentum in the long autumn school term, especially as the evenings draw in and the approach of Christmas provides a ready distraction from the work at hand. However, this year has been particularly draining. We spoke after she had just finished another day trying to teach effectively despite the technical challenges posed by ‘blended’ lessons and the ever-shifting regulations around school. And yet the thing causing most concern for her students and colleagues was not the problem of how to engage a class when half of the students are only intermittently present through video call, but the uncertainty surrounding assessment and exam grading.
Coronavirus has placed additional strain on schools and educational institutions over the last nine months, and has brought to light existing weaknesses in a system struggling after years of cuts and chronic underfunding. We have suddenly become aware of residual issues such as the lack of transparency within qualifications providers or the mistrust of teachers and their predicted grades. The particular pressures of the pandemic have also brought their own challenges, highlighted most shockingly in the recent unwillingness to extend free school meal programmes over school holidays. However, alongside these other concerns, one of the deeper flaws that coronavirus has exposed is how our current education system is made to serve exams rather than students. The emphasis falls on standardised testing at the expense of broader discussions about the state and purpose of education in the UK. Too often, learning is sacrificed in the attempt to sort, judge and appraise pupils, and in this drive to ascribe value to students, we risk losing sight of what learning can and should be: an ongoing, unfolding and communal process.
The prioritisation of assessment over learning is a problem that predates the pandemic, and is evident in the way we structure and conceptualise pedagogy in the UK. The academic cycle is centred around the exam period in May and June, and each year there is a sense of building up to, and working towards, these final examinations. Unlike in several European countries, younger students in the UK do not have to repeat a year if they fail their end of year exams, but the final assessments that UK students take in ‘non-exam’ years is crucial in habituating them to this established academic cycle. Exams are the point around which the year’s work revolves; teachers frantically try to cover the set topics and to deliver exam technique lessons before the crunch point in early summer, only for this relentless routine to begin again in September.
The constant sense of time running out not only contributes to student and teacher burnout, but also means that teachers are slaves to an exam-based curriculum that allows for no flexibility or variation. With the ever-looming threat of exams, teachers must use their limited lesson time to cover and consolidate the set content. Consequently, they are frequently unable to adapt this curriculum to suit the individual needs of their students, or to respond to current affairs. When the exam syllabus demands that they adhere to predetermined topics, how can they nurture their students’ curiosity for subjects that lie outside the curriculum? How can, for example, a history teacher discuss the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, or a drama teacher debate how mass virtual performances alters theatre, when to do so would mean that they cannot teach students how best to navigate the exam paper? Indeed, not only must teachers ensure that their students understand the key concepts within the curriculum, but they must teach these ideas according to how they will appear in the final exam paper. The emphasis is not on the concepts themselves, but on how these concepts can be used to meet the idiosyncratic marking criteria. Learning how to write a good essay and learning how to answer a particular question on an exam paper may be two different things, and it is a cause for considerable concern when formulaic exam technique takes unquestioned precedence over developing a student’s writing style. Writing essays as part of my English Literature degree, it is refreshing not to have to force ‘contextual knowledge’ into every paragraph as part of the PEEL essay structure required by the GCSE syllabus.
Of course, this is not to say that assessments are entirely valueless; certainly, it is useful to be able to gauge a student’s understanding of a topic (for teachers and students alike), and the process of revision can itself be an opportunity to reflect on learning. For some students, formal, standardised exams are a good way of structuring learning and can be a useful assessment tool for those who work well under these conditions. However, having a system in which the need to examine pupils dictates learning, rather than the other way round, means that we have lost sight of how to celebrate and encourage learning in and of itself. Although the exam system as it currently stands suits some types of learners, surely having a one-size-fits-all approach is as outdated as it is illogical. The student population is diverse; our assessment system should be flexible enough to allow all to thrive.
Part of the problem undeniably lies in how education is seen as simply a rung in an individual’s career ladder. Too often, students are encouraged to choose subjects that will enable them to study particular courses or enter certain professions and to consider how they can use their studies to secure a job. Such a career-orientated mindset presents education as an obstacle to overcome and fails to recognise learning as an ongoing, unfolding process. Moreover, the close ties between education and perceived economic capacity means that one of the principle purposes of school examinations is to ascribe value to students. GCSE and A-Level grades rank students in terms of academic achievement, but are also used as indicators of economic potential, with the assumption being that those with the highest grades will ultimately earn the most money. Grades are seen to be trustworthy, objective evidence of a student’s innate worth. This partially explains the furore over results in August 2020; this widespread anxiety about grade inflation belies the underlying fear that students had been over-valued, like goods sold at inflated prices. Higher education is, after all, an investment in the economy of the future. The government provides loans for students to gain skills, with the expectation that this financial obligation will later be repaid and the economy enhanced.
Under the pressure of coronavirus, the need to grade students has only exacerbated neglect of learning. Students have faced months of missed lessons, and continue to experience significant disruption as schools grapple with changing restrictions and cases. Meanwhile, teachers have had to dramatically adapt their teaching to allow for any eventuality, from complete distance learning to a fusion of live and virtual classes, as well as managing staff absences and their own health concerns. A particularly worrying impact of coronavirus is the widening of the educational gap between students from different social groups and in different countries in the UK: research from the National Foundation for Educational Research suggests that the learning gap between students from affluent backgrounds compared to those from less affluent areas increased by 46% over the first national lockdown. With 28% of pupils reporting that they do not have access to a computer at home, this disparity is likely to grow as students are forced to self-isolate and stay away from the classroom.
Given this challenging situation, it would seem logical for the government to prioritise catching up on missed learning, as well as providing additional support for staff and students in a period of uncertainty and loss. Instead, debates around education have been dominated by concerns about how best to run exams in summer 2021, specifically whether to use existing exam models or to move to a more teacher-based assessment or coursework approach. Again, what takes precedence is not the students’ learning and their development as young adults, but the need to evaluate their value after completing their courses. Neither of these suggestions addresses questions of how to help students catch up on missed learning, or how to ensure that schools remain places of relative stability, if not normality, especially for younger or more vulnerable students. Moving to a coursework or teacher-assessment approach only places additional strain on schools, who may have to run additional internal examinations whilst balancing student exam absences. Equally problematic is the prospect of insisting that normal exams do go ahead, which leaves teachers with the impossible task of trying to complete the syllabus after months of absence.
It is clear that the way we conceptualise education is deeply flawed, creating a system that undervalues students and their process of learning. The question remains, then, whether there are alternatives, and how we can start to reframe discussions around pedagogy to better appreciate the process of learning itself. Finland’s education system, which uses minimal standardised assessment, perhaps offers a model of how to reframe education around learning rather than exams. When forming their educational policy, the Finnish government identified key areas that would strengthen education, such as raising the status of the teaching profession, equalising educational opportunity and access, and creating a looser national curriculum. Consequently, a series of targeted reforms since 1970 saw a concerted investment in teacher training and development schemes, which made teaching a desirable and respected profession with opportunities for progression. Moreover, a more flexible curriculum was introduced, allowing students to pursue their own interests and manage their own learning. Play and creativity are celebrated as important learning processes, particularly for younger pupils, resulting in a more holistic teaching approach. Most importantly, however, the government decided to move away from a centralised testing system, which many felt disadvantaged certain pupils and barred them from accessing further opportunities. Now, Finnish students only sit one formal exam at the end of high school; in younger years, teachers instead use reports to reflect on their students’ progress, which opens up a discussion between student and teacher. Here, the open-ended reports suggest the possibility of continuing learning beyond the classroom, unlike final exams which signal a definite closure of the learning process.
Of course, we can not simply transfer this educational system from Finland to the UK as this risks ignoring the social and demographic differences between the two countries, such as population size, distribution and diversity. There have been significant educational reforms in England over the last decade, though the direction of travel appears to be away from the model offered by countries such as Finland. Far from reducing the importance attached to standardised testing, policies introduced by Michael Gove between 2010-14 made GCSE and A-Level courses in England more exam-based by eliminating coursework elements. Moreover, these reforms introduced significant changes to the curriculum, such as making maths more complicated at a younger level and structuring science courses around concrete facts. These reforms, which were implemented with little teacher consultation and which exacerbated resentment within the teaching profession, gave teachers less flexibility and encourage rote-learning. Even for students who perform well in exam conditions, the monotony of memorising reams of facts, figures, statistics and quotations often kills any love for their subject, leaving many disengaged.
Nevertheless, it is still worth asking ourselves what a newly reformed system could look like in the UK. Without the pressure of having to cover the whole exam specification, teachers would be able to be more responsive in their teaching, adapting their lessons to suit their class and engaging more with current affairs. Students could have more independence with their learning, dedicating more time to developing skills that genuinely interest them. Such radical reforms would entail a complete shift in educational policy as well as widespread changes to how the economy functions. There are some reforms currently being implemented, though it is too early to say whether Gavin Williamson’s recent announcement that actual grades, rather than predicted ones, will be used when offering university places will indeed be fairer to the disadvantaged pupils he hopes to support. However, as coronavirus forces us to change our ways of life, we should use this opportunity to reflect on whether our systems and institutions are working best for the people they are meant to serve. Ultimately, the question should not be about how to evaluate and grade students in the context of the pandemic, but what do we value in education? Can we find a way to celebrate a love for learning in and of itself, or must education remain subservient to the need to assess students’ worth?
Artwork by Amir Pichhadze