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A-levels Results: Is tomorrow the beginning of the end or the change we desperately need?

Thousands of students across the country are bracing themselves for a day of upset and uncertainty riding on the waves of the Scottish u-turn on 'downgraded' results. The anxiety surrounding the coverage is not helped by the chaotic and rushed response from the UK government who somewhat unhelpfully, announced last night that although appeals were initially forbidden, students who receive a lower grade than their mock result can reject their result. What does it mean and how could this be the catalyst for change desperately needed by secondary education in the UK? I examine the evidence in this post on the eve of results day.

The so-called 'triple lock' was announced last night by panicking members of the Department for Education, responding to widespread concern about the validity of the results due to be released in England and Northern Ireland tomorrow (Wales is factoring in AS-level grades). Students will be able to choose from three options tomorrow: accept their predicted grade, choose their mock exam result or sit an exam in the Autumn. This appeals process will only be available if a student receives a grade tomorrow that is lower than their mock exam result - clearly a possibility for many 17- and 18-year-olds pinning their future choices on guesswork and algorithms.

Already this week we've seen the Scottish government reinstate hundreds of thousands of lowered grades, which penalised students attending schools with poor historical exam performances. Now, with news that mock exams may be used to calculate grades, uncertainty about how this can be approached fairly and consistently when mock assessments, by their very name, are unregulated, are being raised. Many schools even cancelled mock exams, leaving students in a liminal position due to this last minute and unprecedented appeal procedure. The knock-on effect continues to universities who will need to leave places open to students going through an appeal in case they meet the entry standards (places can be held until 7th September). On this point though, a word of reassurance as I expect universities will be welcoming candidates with lower grades due to the drop in international student admissions and rising financial uncertainty in the HE sector.

There is plenty of rhetoric in the press surrounding the grading fiasco, as it is now being referred, and it is estimated that 39% of grades being awarded have been downgraded from initial teacher predictions. Those worst hit will be high-achieving students attending schools in deprived areas, or with lower attainment records, and this is thanks to OFQUAL's flawed algorithm. At this point it is worth remembering the drive to rid education of coursework by our government, a move that already worked against many students who struggle with exams (I was one of them years ago when coursework was mercifully still included). Now we can see the wider impact of this initiative to standardise results: if grades are only based on the performance of a few hours at the end of a two-year course, are we really educating the next generation? Or, are we merely instructing them in the ways of working to formulas to attain meaningless grades? This is not a new idea and has certainly been a point of contention over the years, but we may now be in a very strong position to overhaul a severely broken system.

Winds of Change

Let's take GCSE English Literature for example, where the syllabus has been reduced to a nightmare of colonial inspired texts written by white men two centuries ago. We live in a diverse and vibrant country influenced by innumerable cultures, traditions, ideas and histories and yet we cling to figures such as Dickens, Conan-Doyle and Stevenson to educate our what exactly?

In the 21st century, being forced to read and even memorise chunks of literature that rely on stereotypes of race, class and gender, to the point of discrimination is a fatally flawed method. Rather than inspiring, these texts merely alienate young people from literature. Not only are these texts misogynistic, racist and classist, they are also, for many students, unintelligible for the most part due to the archaic use of clunky and outdated language. No wonder the Black Lives Matter Movement exploded this summer. Surely it would be more satisfying and inspiring to teach literature from around the world, offering a historical, social and contextual understanding to students desperately in need of a connection beyond the canon. Why not bring back coursework requiring creative writing and essays based on texts chosen by students to complement their own interests? Instead we stifle them with the ostensible "fathers of english literature."Why limit them to only 3 or 4 texts for two years? It's madness.

The way forward...

Clearly the education system is in dire need of an overhaul and naturally this cannot occur over night. However, with the right backing and level of pressure, the government can be convinced that we need to look beyond exams and grading as a mark of intellectual success and remember why education exists in the first place! A mantra to live by through the stresses that will undoubtedly be unearthed in the morning!

For more information on changes to exams in 2021 read my previous blog here.

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