Chris Smith discusses education policy in a post Covid-19 Britain.
Any student of politics will appreciate the dictum “never let a good crisis go to waste” so let us follow that advice in imagining how education post Covid-19 can be improved. Teachers like health care professionals, although not to the same terrible extent, have suffered the neglect of a lost decade of austerity and now must grasp the current crisis’ upending of accepted wisdom to enhance their professional agency whilst there is understanding of the value of experts. I am referring to exams here, alongside even the Daily Telegraph who this past week ran a piece asking if the temporary cancellation should be made. Finally acknowledging an argument education professionals have been advancing for years that teachers professional judgments should be recognised as of more value than a snap shot of student performance.
The earliest revelation for many of the current crisis was that of who the real key workers of society are. Teachers are on this list, not in the same way as health workers for sound and obvious reason and this holds within it another revelation about the place and status of the teaching profession. Teaching has often been referred to as a “Cinderella profession” where politicians will regularly refer to teachers as professionals akin to doctors in times of demanding something from them but then when it comes to the practicality of pay, conditions and professional autonomy happy to dismiss the views of these same public servants. With disastrous consequences for both teachers and students. Many outside the profession will be familiar with how unattractive it has become through headlines of the numbers who have left it due to disgust with Govian reforms, unlimited workload and accompanying stress. This all underpins the most demoralising issue: the lack of professional status. As a teacher myself now of eight years I have survive the first milestone of five years service after which a reported 30 – 40% quit and am now contemplating leaving before the ten year milestone which is frequently reported as a point by which 50% leave. The conflict between what teaching should be and what it is are my reasons which is why I am excited, and it should be noted for the first time in quite some time, by the potential for a brave new world of education.
Back to exams. If they can be forgone this summer and students still progress into employment, apprenticeships or university as it is expected to the point of certainty that they will then why return them? The case for exams is follows: they are dispassionate and anonymous; they are standardised thus fair; They allow for results that are easily understood; They enable schools and teachers to be held to account by providing a way of measuring school achievement in terms of how many students achieve “good” results. This final point is the critical one as it is the most significant reason why politicians are loathe to replace exams. It is also why ending exams as we know it would be such as a radical transformation as it would shift the balance of power in favour of class room professionals in a way politicians are unwilling to do as it would create a self-confident profession possessing autonomy on an inconvenient scale.
In terms of the other arguments in favour of exams they are nor strong and I am not proposing a system of no examination or assessment as there is of course still a role for exams just ones created, administered, assessed and then peer reviewed by serving teachers. To those unfamiliar with how current “standardised” GCSEs and A Levels work they are hardly fair or effective systems. The evidence of the stress caused by them is legion, British students are the most over tested in Europe and rates of poor mental health and even suicide are rising steadily linked to exam overload at the end of two years of “crammed” study. The whole experience of students at school is blighted by an exam factory mentality where all efforts throughout schooling are geared towards passing a test rather than any more humane or enriching purpose. The process of creating and then assessing these exams is a bureaucratic labyrinth comprising multiple “competing” exam boards which are “edu businesses”, some charities, and quangos who take public money to draft vast amounts of literature to tell teachers how to do their jobs written by people with little to no teaching experience themselves. Schools must then spend more of their portion of the nation’s education budget on buying supporting materials such as text books from these bodies. Many teachers then mark exam papers for these cartels in a manner prescribed it would seem entirely to remove professional judgment. This is not a scientific study of the economics but the costs of compensating teacher through higher salaries to take on some of these roles would undoubtedly be less than the sums spent on this outsourcing of professional agency. For starters any pay rises would be minimal as all teachers would prize the increased professional autonomy and status derived from being the true gate keepers of educational standards above any chance to their contracts measure in pounds and pence
Many will dismiss my proposal as utopian, in dismissal of the professionalism of teachers which is understandable given Britain makes no effort to present teachers as expert professionals. What the current crisis proves however is teachers are key workers. You can take away the exams and associated bureaucracy as has been done and teachers still innovate in delivering learning opportunities for students who will still progress to the next stage of their lives. Take the teachers out of this the exam boards cannot do fill their roles. Is it really utopian to suggest teachers be free to exercise the full professional agency their status deserves? After all teachers working conditions are children’s learning conditions and if this crisis can create a better understanding of how to enhance these then it will not have been a wasted.