Opinion

Paul McNamee: Our test? To get radical

We have the chance to reframe the apparatus of our lives and genuinely build back better, rather than have that as some sort of trite soundbite

A great opportunity is staring us in the face.

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen the complete mess governments in Westminster and Holyrood have made of school exam results. Due to lockdown, final exams for A-levels and GCSEs, technical equivalent exams such as BTECs, as well as National 5s and Highers, the Scottish GCSEs and A-levels, could not be taken. So results had to be calculated based on a few variables, including mock exams and teachers’ predicted grades. And despite having several months to get things ready and work out systems that were fair and equitable, the governments and their examining bodies didn’t just drop the ball, they burst it, kicked it into nettles, set the nettles on fire, poured some petrol on the fire, then said play on, all is fine.

The problem was that both used an algorithm built to stop inflated results. But it looked at how schools had performed in the past, so smart pupils in schools in poorer areas were marked down. They were punished twice – once because underfunding prevented their schools getting essential resources, leading to poorer results. And then, though thriving despite the under-resourcing, the rug was pulled due to what others had done.

The Scottish Government tried to fix things by switching to grades using teacher estimates. Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary in London, saw which way the wind was blowing and hastily announced a fudge that remains unclear.

Either way round, pupils lost out. It was the worst of all worlds. Pupils who got the grades they were predicted, and let’s remember they had worked their school lives towards, saw the results delegitimised.

Also, given what they’ve gone through, why not just keep the grades up? All pupils were locked in at home at the very time they most wanted to be out with friends. They’re facing a job market and housing market that has never been more uncertain. In a few years, they’ll see that other things overshadow the day they got their results. So why not let them have some damn sunshine now? I realise it’s a little late for that.

We’re coming out of a situation that nobody alive has ever seen before

There is a bigger issue in play. We have had a chance to really address the efficacy of the entire exam system. During lockdown, between periods of intense work and bouts of indolence, we should have got into the meat of this.

With schools empty it was the time to ask if the system we operate is the best one for pupils and teachers. Could there be a better way? Teachers are frequently asked to change at the whim of whichever secretary of state is in office. They are laden down with paperwork and politically driven directives. I’m guessing with more time available a good number stood back and considered what would work better. So why not ask them? They’re the frontline experts. Let’s get them involved in changing to make things better.

We’re coming out of a situation that nobody alive has ever seen before. We have the chance to reframe the apparatus of our lives and genuinely build back better, rather than have that as some sort of trite soundbite.

This goes beyond schools. We know the recession we’re in will hammer the lives and livelihoods of millions. So why accept that we simply need to get back to how we were. How we were, in housing, in employment, in health, in finance, in those really big pillars that prop up our lives, wasn’t great.

The chance to be radical is with us. The government in Westminster could lead the way. If Dominic Cummings genuinely wants to reform and change, and could stop being a cartoon baddie for a second, the chance is here to make things better for all, not just a gilded few. We could make sure those who were impoverished and abandoned, particularly those beaten down by the austerity cuts of the last 10 years, could be part of the future. And could see that all that lockdown talk of making things different this time was not just hot air.

It would be a massive failure if we were not to seize this.

Paul McNamee is the editor of The Big Issue

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