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Behind Enemy Lines

“If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.’ George Orwell

Teachers and students up and down the country are reflecting on the most chaotic and bewildering A-level results day in recent times. With algorithms replacing teacher discretion, pedagogical expertise being rendered invisible and students dreams left shattered, who know what September has in store for us all.

A-level or GCSE results days are monumental occasions. I still remember collecting my results and the euphoria of realising my dreams to study at university had come true. On Thursday, many thousands of students’ collected their results and during such unprecedented times, the stakes for some of them could not have been any higher. During the global pandemic teachers have faced enormous backlash and scrutiny by all quarters of society but the outcry last night really conceptualised the last decade. A decade of sustained mistrust towards teachers by policymakers. A disconnect that is at the heart of many of the issues surrounding teaching.

The independent sector prospered during a truly unprecedented time. Image: BBC

The 40%

40% was the number brandished around. Nearly 40% of A-level grades awarded were lower than teacher predictions. Prime Minister Boris Johnson referred to these as a “robust set of grades”. News coverage, as always, showed images of both agony and ecstasy. Teachers up and down the country were left bemused, demoralised and outraged as their predictions were vastly ignored. Many students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds suffering, the A-level results speak volumes about the sustained disconnect between those in charge of the country and its educators. Even the appeals process is farcical as parents and schools forking out hundreds of pounds to have judgements overturned in favour of the grades teachers predicted in the first place. Unnecessary, futile and just hugely bureaucratic.

Policies, mistrust and depoliticisation

My three main concerns about the A-level debacle are not exclusive. I do believe for our education system to prosper, our policymakers needs to cherish the treasure they have tried to bury for long; their incredibly dedicated, committed and hardworking teachers.

Policies that have never been mandated – When Michael Gove became Education Secretary, he began to cherry-pick policies from other countries. Free Schools from Finland, performance-related pay from Sweden and our nations young people became Guinea pigs to world comparative assessments such as PISA. Academisation was broadened, local authorities lost control of educational establishments. With Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) abolished, Sure Start centres closed, 9-1 GCSE grading system introduced and A-levels becoming linear. Gove continued to dismantle, reform and hastily push through policies under the ‘rigorous’ or ‘improving standards’ banner. My question here is, particularly relating to the A-levels debacle, which pedagogical expert or ‘consultant’ in their right mind decided to make A-levels linear? Modular exams would have provided empirical validation and yes, a ‘rigorous’ view of the progress of our students. High-stakes testing which has become a hallmark of the Gove-inspired education system has really fallen flat on its face. Yet, who mandated any of these policies? Why are those on the very front line not consulted? Was there scope for education research in forming these policies? Why are teachers frozen out of the policy-making process? I want to know if it was Chuckle Vision or tunnel vision that helped form these policies? Who has benefitted? Does everyone associated with educational policy have the interests of students at heart? In 2014, the last sentence I penned in my final undergraduate exam was “Michael Gove is an ideologically obsessed zealot”. Six years on, I stand by those words.

Professional mistrust – These are truly unprecedented times! Even Doctors are being told to ‘watch their tone’ as they wade in on conversations about public health! It is clear that by ignoring teacher CAGs and failing to accept our professional judgment on our students, their progress and potentially their future destinations. Professional mistrust has permeated into our education system and it starts with our policy makers. How we judge our teachers as ‘effective’ or ‘good’ is an arbitrary cookie-cutter approach, a mere Ofsted-esque mirror image and box-ticking tunnel vision. Teachers are rarely given the autonomy in their classroom due to internal and external pressures. As frameworks continue to move goalposts, many school leaders feel this strain and micromanage their staff. I am by no means saying educational policies have created this veneer of mistrust, but it is truly implausible to suggest the unmandated policies we have referred to above, in our performance-drive educational world have not played their role. Policymakers do not live in our intellectual world, their brashness or arrogance in condemning our best efforts offer little to recruit, retain and improve the morale of teachers. Ultimately, professional mistrust and suspicion that teachers may be ‘massaging’ data in their favour, which many may do, plays a role in this shambolic grading scandal our schools were forced to face yesterday.

Depoliticisation of disadvantaged children – The intellectual arrogance to continue to depoliticise the term ‘disadvantaged children’ leaves many of shaking with anger. To think that Gavin Williamson pushed this ‘attainment poverty’ narrative on us, teaching unions were scapegoated and even Kirstie Allsopp got hot under the collar. Teachers were a detriment and deemed an enemy to social mobility. This narrative comes from the same government that has ignored the Social Mobility Commission’s recommendations for an entire decade. The same government that has plunged five million children into poverty, cut mainline services for our young people. The same government that had to make a U-turn to provide free meals for the most disadvantaged children after pressure and campaigning from Footballer, Marcus Rashford. This of course is nothing new! Richard Tawney in 1931 believed social class was the “hereditary curse” of the English education system. Jackson and Marsden in 1962 claimed that education was a method to liberate the upper-classes and police and pacify the most deprived. Historically, disadvantaged children have been swimming against the tide and I suppose over the last decade, there have been fewer life jackets available for them. There is also a clear case for classism in the A-level results debacle. Disadvantaged children did face the brunt of the downgrades whereas the independent sector saw the biggest rise in their top A-level grades. Oh, the irony of Williamson referring to equality of opportunity! In a political system marred by hereditary peerages, nepotism and opportunity hoarding and in a Cabinet made up on people who have lived in a realm of social prestige – astonishing. Disadvantaged children want to believe in their teachers’ visions of meritocracy and hard-work. They want their efforts rewarded in a system that is structurally polarised based on either class, race, ethnicity or even post code. Disadvantaged children want their voices heard in a democratic system that caters for their needs. These children want their teachers to be able to support them to the best of their ability. I know full well, I was in the ‘disadvantaged’ category for my entire school life. Finally, they need a level play field, pun intended.

A global pandemic required courage and strong leadership and not empty rhetoric and ideological swindle. It is time Gavin Williamson resigns. Image: ITV News

In Summary

I still find it unbelievable seeing a student crying after she was awarded a D grade when her predictions were straight As. When it was announced that examinations across the country were cancelled, a unified approach was required. Teachers and policymakers needed to find a resolution, a middle ground and to prevent the catastrophe we witnessed yesterday. Taking away ideological gains here, teachers remain aggrieved and deeply hurt. The rigorous training, the hoops we jump through and endless overtime we put in for our students, we simply want our professional judgement to be valued. I believe this A-level debacle is over decade in the making.

Finally, to Gavin Williamson. We are amidst a global pandemic, a teacher retention and recruitment crisis. Your spouse works in education too. This was your opportunity to reconnect with those you ‘represent’ and legislate for. You have failed us teachers, you have failed disadvantaged children and ultimately, Michael Gove may have planted the seeds but under your supervision his visions have come to fruition. If only you consulted schools, unions, vested stakeholders and wanted to make education a hub for social mobility, teachers would not feel like they are behind enemy lines trying to provide every child with the best opportunities to achieve.

Thank you for reading,

Shuaib Khan.

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