Tuesday, February 02, 2021

The Virus and the Exams

I feel extremely lucky that I was already home-educating my children before the Coronavirus struck. My children's education has not escaped entirely unscathed--their sporting opportunities have been eviscerated--but they have fared as well as anyone and better than most. Teaching and learning have simply carried on, if necessary online. One thing we can't control, however, is the setting of public examinations. 

Now we are told that the Government has cancelled this summer’s public examinations in schools, and is consulting on what to do instead. An article on a blog on the government website explains:

The cancellation of examinations this summer is not because the pandemic makes them impossible to sit … but rather because the unequal impact of the pandemic makes it impossible for them to be fair.

This is for the simple fact that disadvantaged students have had less digital access and schooling, resulting in higher learning loss than their more advantaged peers. They will not be on a level playing field.

As such, qualifications for 2021 can never be an objective measure of performance in the way we are used to, no matter how much we might wish it.

This is a thoroughly disingenuous argument. Certainly the closure of schools has made an “unequal impact”, and this is a catastrophe which will have terrible and long-term consequences.

But it does not follow that exams this summer would not be “an objective measure of performance in the way we are used to.” We are used to disadvantaged children performing poorly in exams, because for whatever reason they have learned less than other children and are less competent in getting their knowledge down on paper. If there were exams this summer, we would see that again, with knobs on, and would learn precisely how much educational damage had been done, and to whom.

This is information the UK Government has decided should not be made available, to universities or employers, to teachers, or to children and their families.

The real argument against having examinations this summer, which emerges eventually from this article, is that while exams usually serve indirectly as a measure of potential, showing who is suited to further studies or jobs, this time they will fail to detect the potential in those children who have suffered most from the closure of schools.

This argument is easier to sympathize with. It is certainly unfair, and a tragic waste, when children’s educational prospects are blighted by factors beyond their control. However, there remains a problem. While universities and employers certainly want to know about potential, there is simply no way of telling what people will do in the future except by reference to what they have done in the past. Candidates for demanding degree courses who have excelled at demanding courses of study at school have demonstrated, insofar as it is possible to demonstrate, that they are equal to the challenge. A certificate of potential based solely on wishful thinking about what young people could do if they put their minds to it will obviously have no credibility.

Such certificates may be where we are heading, and they have the further advantages, for educational progressives, of enabling schools and examiners to make up for all the disadvantages which children have endured. It could be a woke paradise, indeed, with people ranked, not according to achievement, but according to their place in the hierarchy of victimhood.

At the same time it would render unnecessary any actual teaching. Progressive teachers who hate giving children information, or training them in any testable skills, would no doubt welcome this possibility.

This approach also tends to see education as a competition where every winner creates a loser, without regard for the overall level of attainment. In this spirit the Portuguese government recently forbade private schools from offering online lessons, to prevent their pupils from getting too far ahead of children in state schools. This suggests that society as a whole does not benefit from people being educated. In that case, why bother with schools at all?

Oh I was forgetting: schools would still have a role in undermining parent’s values and as child-care for mothers forced to work outside the home.

But a good education does benefit children. The knowledge, skills, and study-habits formed over years of demanding study makes them better able to tackle further studies or jobs. In other words, a child’s potential is not fixed at birth. Good education increases a child’s potential, and poor education limits it. It doesn’t matter what your genes are, if you have no relevant knowledge or skills you would not cope with a degree course in astrophysics, and letting you do it because of your “potential” would simply waste your time as well as everyone else’s.

Again, education is not a zero-sum undertaking. There may be a fixed number of university places, in a given year, but there aren't a fixed number of job opportunities: a better educated population is more economically productive. Again, education is not just about making money. Children are benefitted by education because it gives them an intellectual formation: it makes them educated adults, able to understand, articulate, and engage with ideas.

What is needed in this crisis is not for teachers to give up on education more than ever, but to make up for lost time. The Institute of Fiscal Studies estimates that children at school this year will end up £40,000 worse-off over their lifetimes as a result of the disruption to their education. They propose a raft of initiatives to address the problem by teaching them: in summer schools, for example. Giving them certificates of the exam results they might have achieved in other circumstances won’t help: catching up on learning might.

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