THERE WAS FURTHER RELIEF for Scotland’s communities yesterday, as Education Secretary John Swinney bowed to the inevitable and cancelled next year’s Higher and Advanced Higher exams. Teaching unions had warned that delaying this decision would only add to the disruption and the torment for pupils. Grades will now be awarded on teacher judgements of pupil achievement over the year.
The decision to cancel exams is not based on safety grounds. Opposition parties had instead highlighted problems of equity, the disproportionate disruption to the lives of working-class pupils. With Covid having struck everyone from the Windsors to Donald Trump, a myth emerged that it does not discriminate on grounds of class. But on almost every metric this is false. Pandemic-related school absences have thus been highest in Scotland’s poorest communities.
Crucially, gone too is the SQA algorithm that caused this year’s exams fiasco. This “moderation” famously had the impact of baking inequalities back into the system, with absurd consequences. The flipside, critics will argue, is that questions may emerge over the “fairness and robustness” of the model. And certainly, a proportion of parents and pupils may agonise that employers or universities will doubt their credibility in future.
Equally, though, the examination system has always raised questions of fairness and robustness. It is an easily gamed system with a tendency, at the margins, to reward the “cramming” strategies of middle-class families with otherwise underperforming children, and conversely to bias against otherwise talented working-class pupils. The precise reasons for this are not always clear, but the impact of exams tends to be the reproduction of class injustice.
It will thus be interesting to note the impact of this year’s system on the vexed question of the poverty-related attainment gap. It is often forgotten that this was meant to be the Scottish Government’s defining mission, the one metric on which Sturgeon asked critics to judge her. So far, results have been mixed. Specific money from the Scottish Attainment Challenge and Pupil Equity Fund has run up against general cuts to schools deriving from austerity programmes. But this last year has forced radical, experimental initiatives that would never have been contemplated under ordinary circumstances.
Still, coronavirus has already had major but largely unknown impacts on underlying inequalities. What we do know is that pupils in deprived communities have disproportionately suffered the brunt of illness and learning loss, adding to all the existing biases of the schooling system.
As I reflected yesterday, with a failing economy and escalating issues of class injustice, governments worldwide cannot afford to build illusions in a “return to normality”. Our various systems are broken and in need of radical surgery. This is a time to rethink what normality means, including the injustices we tolerated in the past.
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