Education, not exam culture

Education targets become ends in themselves, argues Michael Copestake

Schools should not be prisons

The pernicious and self-defeating influence of targets, league tables and over-examination in schools has thrust the education system once again into the media spotlight. This time outside its regular place in the annual news cycle, which, as residents of Britain at least will know, usually follows the release of exam results in the summer. Ever rising pass rates among young learners are marked not only by scenes of celebration outside their schools and colleges. There are also claims that exams have become too easy and qualifications therefore ‘devalued’.

This latest scandal, like the uncovering of the MPs’ expenses scam, was revealed by The Daily Telegraph and, also like MPs’ expenses, the story itself was nothing new at all. Despite all the hullabaloo and the outrage, the fact that the exam boards collude with teachers to help school students get through was more or less an open secret. The aim is to ensure better pass rates and thus, on the one side, a higher league table position for the schools; and, on the other, a bigger slice of the action for the examination boards compared to their rivals.

Undercover journalists from the Telegraph simply paid a couple of hundred pounds and bought their way into special seminars aimed specifically at teachers that were put on by exam boards licensed by Ofqual, the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation. They surreptitiously recorded the proceedings, as the representatives were nudged and prodded into coughing up some juicy hints as to what material they could expect to be included in upcoming exams. An undercover journalist filmed a representative of Edexcel, one of the biggest boards, boasting that its geography exam was so lacking in content she was amazed it was actually allowed by the regulator.

Interestingly, the story soon moved on from expressions of outrage at the behaviour of a ‘few rotten apples’ to the wider issues that affect the education system as a whole. There is a whole string of interlocking material interests which drive and incentivise the behaviour of the actors caught up in the pseudo-market mechanisms introduced into the education system by various governments.

The practical effects of the introduction of such tools of competition, including league tables and targets, have been utterly antithetical to their stated purpose. Instead of improving education, they have helped create a bureaucratic system of manipulation, with the careers and livelihoods of teachers at stake, on the one hand, and the market share of the exam boards on the other. Caught up in the middle of all this are the students and pupils themselves.

League tables are perhaps the aspect most loathed by teachers, who well understand how schools are driven to do anything to improve their positions, regardless of the effects this has on the kind of education being provided. This culture of fear produces the collusion that has hit the headlines and the further devaluation of education – far from encouraging creative or critical thought, it reinforces narrow curricula and rote learning. The idea that a rise in league table rankings represents some kind of better education is an utter nonsense.

Rather like the ‘planning’ imposed in the former Soviet Union, measures that are supposed to lead to all-round improvement cause only duplicity and chaos. It is generally agreed that the all-pervasive targets in education are damaging, in that they lead teachers to concentrate on particular sections of students at the expense of others, in the belief that better scores from a minority will produce an increase in the overall average. So some teachers, it is suggested, may neglect the ‘solid B’ students whose results are unlikely to drag the class average down, thus reducing the possibility that they could score an A (or even, god forbid, actually begin to develop work of value). Instead attention is focused on the D students in order to get them up to C and raise those all-important averages. On the other hand, the system may lead to the writing off of the same D students, depending on how numerous they are, and a shift in attention and resources onto the already higher achievers.

Clearly there is room enough for both situations to arise. But the point is that all this effort is specifically directed not at any genuine improvement in individual students’ understanding, let alone creativity, but at bumping up averages as an aim in itself. Exams, which are ostensibly meant to provide a measure of a candidate’s abilities, instead are used primarily to provide masses of data, which in turn help set new targets and continue the trend to replace genuine education – the ‘leading out’ of an individual’s talents – with mere schooling.

To measure is to limit – to believe one can dispense something like education in the way one may measure out millilitres of water leads to an impoverishment of the learning experience, the measure itself becoming the most important factor, and certainly not the quality of the subject matter. People get taught how to pass exams, which can often be a poor measure of ability for many reasons. The appearance of success, the hitting of the target, becomes crucial, yet that appearance comes into conflict with the actual reality – the whole practice is counterproductive, even from the point of view of bourgeois schooling. This is designed to inculcate discipline, obedience and jumping through the necessary hoops in accordance with whatever it is the ‘business community’ is demanding at any given moment. There is already limited scope for a rounded education – Mick Waters, a former director of government exam regulation, of all people, comments: “There are children who learn paragraphs all day, every day … just so they can write them [once] in June” (The Guardian December 8).

The Financial Times warns that there is a risk of a “race to the bottom” as a result of this competition, and many bourgeois commentators mirror this concern, but none go much beyond seeking to re-establish the “credibility” of British exams (December 9). Conservative education secretary Michael Gove and his Labour counterpart, Stephen Twigg, have jumped with hippo-like agility onto the condemnatory bandwagon with cries of ‘Discredited!’ and ‘Culture of corruption!’ But these are the representatives of the same parties that have subjected the education system and its students to the very system that could do nothing else but produce the outcome we are now witnessing and that they condemn.

Restoring the ‘credibility’ of the exam system, by whatever means, would not make capitalist education fit for purpose in our eyes. There was no golden age, no Eden to return to. Our alternative – the total transformation of the whole of society, including the nature of education – is not on the immediate horizon, but there are tasks facing the workers’ movement in which it should immediately become engaged. We need to ensure, as far as possible, that education is shaped by the interests of labour, as opposed to those of capital and the capitalist state – an education that enriches a working class culture of independence rather than a reliance on the institutions of the class enemy, institutions within which there can only ever be partial gains for our class. Trade unions should provide far greater educational facilities for their members and insist that ‘on the job’ training reflects the broader needs of workers, not just the narrow demands of employers.

The creation of an alternative working class culture within capitalism was to a great extent achieved by the Social Democratic Party of Germany in the second half of the 19th century. The SPD’s educational facilities included a well-equipped Berlin centre, where Rosa Luxemburg taught economics. We cannot end the system until the working class takes power, but we can build a base in the here and now – one that not only provides a space for free, creative thought, cooperation and dissent within capitalism, but actually makes that coming to power more likely.

First published here.

One comment

  • Indeed, it important to look for alternatives to the current system of eduction. To simply fight for the means without knowing what kind of education you actually want or need, doesn’t bring you one step further than trade union ‘politics’ (at best).
    But to be honest, I don’t think it is helpful to discribe the SPD ‘Parteischule’ as a some sort of a base, even if Luxemburg did theach economics. I think that the Berlin centre was simply an organised form of the basic socialist education you expect from a marxist group.

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