The real problem is that the English education system rewards the rich | Francoise Ryan
Aresponsible for GCSE results on Thursday, the government announced that all A-level and GCSE scores will be based on teachers’ assessments rather than the controversial algorithm. It’s a welcome turnaround, even if it doesn’t do much to address the underlying problem. This has always been clearly a class issue: private schools have particularly benefited from the statistical model used to replace A-levels last week, increasing the proportion of students achieving the highest grades – A * and A – twice as high as students in full classes.
You only have to see heartbroken teens posting on social media to understand the pain of the past few days: working-class youth who had their dream future ahead of them only to lose it because they live in the wrong postcode. . These students deserved justice, the government is right to fix the system in England, just as the decentralized nations have pledged to do.
But it would be a mistake to treat this debacle as a one-time mistake that can be fixed with a better grade calculator. The scandal is just a bigger version of the long-standing reality: working class children work hard and get thrown too often, while families in private schools buy their admission.
The year before the pandemic, the Sutton Trust found that students in independent schools were seven times more likely to get a place in Oxford or Cambridge than those in non-selective public schools, and more than twice as likely to take a place in the institutions of the Russell group. . In 2018, another study found that nearly half of ‘smart but underprivileged’ students failed to achieve top GCSE grades. Only 52% of the top performing disadvantaged pupils in primary school achieved at least five A * and A grades in England, compared to 72% of their wealthier and equally intelligent peers.
Far from being wrong, the infamous algorithm has succeeded in many ways in replicating the socio-economic bias that has plagued the education system for centuries. Or to put it another way: the educational inequality exposed by the incompetence of the government is not a shock. It’s business as usual.
Just look at how the exams crisis is discussed. In much of the media, the focus has been on A * students missing out on a spot at Oxbridge (perhaps in part because most of the media have followed that route themselves) with barely any attention to the working-class adolescents who hoped to get straight into employment or that the proportion of people with grade C and above has fallen the most in disadvantaged areas. Even the so-called heartwarming claim that “exams don’t matter” is steeped in privilege. It’s easy to say that the grades are irrelevant if you have related parents and an apartment in London, but much harder if you are at your local school in a low-income city.
During the pandemic, we have seen the division of classes in education manifest itself in new ways. Almost two-thirds of private schools already had e-learning platforms before the lockdown, compared to just a quarter of the most poorly funded public schools. While the rich got laptops and reliable broadband to keep learning, the poorest kids didn’t even eat breakfast.
Education at its best is a chance to enter a new world, but too often it is a trap, a trap that perversely gives those who are already born high on the ladder a head start. reinforces the difficulties of those born underprivileged. The problem has never been simply that England has a failing education system which confers unfair advantages on the 7% who go to private school, but also that the remaining 93% are fully aware of this. We accept it, even when it penalizes our own children. We put it as “one of those things”. It’s not one of those things. It’s a choice, and we have every chance to wake up. That a former Astonian prime minister is the one overseeing this latest scandal is a very subtle symbol.
Labor has so far offered a strangely muted response to the exams crisis, but it can turn the tide by not only demanding justice for working-class students discriminated against by the algorithm, but also by broadening the conversation on the inequality of the education system itself. For example, the introduction of Russell Group quotas to ensure that only 7% of places go to private school alumni is long overdue.
Inequality does not usually come with a bang. It is usually not a headline-grabbing scandal or a quitting issue. It is constant, accepted, anchored in society. The exam fiasco is a shameful mess for which the government must redeem itself. But next year’s working class students will also deserve a fairer system. Let the indignation last.
Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist
On Monday, August 24 at 6:30 p.m. BST, reporters from The Guardian will discuss the fallout from the Level A results fiasco at a live-streamed event. What will be the implications for universities? How will inequalities be affected? Book your tickets here