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In The Line of Fire

How the announcement to go ahead with GCSE and A-level exams may impact on our disadvantaged students? A critical analysis.

“Education cannot compensate for society” – Basil Bernstein

Last night I wrote about the British obsession with examinations but inadvertently unearthed something deeper in my reflections. This has been a truly remarkable year and not just in the world of education. 2020 will go down as the year where we had the most sustained dialogue about the attainment of disadvantaged children. However, the rhetoric could hardly be any further from the reality in providing equality of opportunity for our young people.

Yesterday, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson gave the green light for the 2021 GCSE and A-level examinations to go ahead. After six months of remote learning, schools up and down the country are hastily trying to ensure pupils can plug gaps in knowledge. These gaps were inevitable but as is the case in education, there is no place to hide and no respite for teachers. As policy makers try to balance the economy and public health, teachers are on the back foot but our are most vulnerable and disadvantaged don’t have a foot to stand on at all.

It is estimated that by 2022, 5.5 million children will grow up in poverty. Are exams the best way to equalise this disadvantage? Are they even the most effective measure of a child’s progress? Imagine: JRF

Before I began to write this blog, a close friend said to me, “Shuaib, not another article about disadvantaged children.” He was referring to my piece called Enemy of the State in May. But it does feel like, apart from Marcus Rashford and teachers, disadvantaged children have been left stranded. Whilst our national treasure, Marcus campaigns to feed the neediest, we fight to give them a seat at the table.

The strain placed on teachers with Williamson’s announcement yesterday cannot go understated. Alongside the rising number of COVID cases in educational settings, the true practicalities of compensating for six months of remote learning by pushing exams three weeks further is beyond outrageous. Yet, as true professionals, teachers will plough on and put in the graft until the inevitable U-turn. Until then, teachers and disadvantaged children remain in the line of fire.

Yesterday the DfE have openly stated that, “students will have extra time to prepare for exams next summer.” Gavin Williamson later Tweeted, “Exams are the fairest way of judging performance. We’re giving students and teachers the certainty that exams will go ahead in 2010 with more time to prepare plus support from the COVID Catch Up Fund.” The ideological fascination with high-stakes testing and assessment retains it stranglehold on teaching and learning here in Britain. However, it must also be said that after the exam shambles this past summer, perhaps allowing our students to just sit exams really is the fairest way to allocate grades, as clearly the algorithms worked a treat! My concern with yesterdays announcement really is about equity and equality of opportunity. These three concerns are not exhaustive but an opportunity for us to critically reflect.

Misunderstanding and depolitcisation of disadvantaged children

Inequalities in society are a political as well as a social issue. This idea that education is the sole force for equalising inequalities and that meritocracy is ubiquitous must be questioned and analysed. Britain is a grossly unequal society and report after report illustrate the chasm between the wealthy and deprived. 2020 is the year where we begin to openly discuss about the role of schools and teachers in helping equalise the disadvantages for our most deprived children. Context is key. Do we ignore the brutal cuts to education funding and a decade of austerity where annually £12 billion has been taken from our public sector and frontline services to support the most disadvantaged and vulnerable? Gavin Williamson has said that exams are the fairest way to assess progress but does this empty rhetoric have practical groundings? The 10,000 laptops that were promised to our disadvantages learners are still missing and apart from the British tradition of throwing money at the problem, what has been done at the grassroots level to challenge inequalities? This idea that disadvantaged children exist in some sort of political vacuum is nebulous, misleading and depoliticising education at a time where the state has its ideological stranglehold over most aspects of state education. Disadvantaged children do not walk into school at the tender age of 4/5 and a decade later cleanse themselves of all inequalities and experiences that have shaped their life chances. Inequality just like education is political. The ability to heat and freeze discussions and use certain groups to thrust ideological stances is a pillar of privilege and platform. If there was any real effort to make education a real equalising force for society, then socio-economic disparity would be contested. With the Social Mobility Commission estimating that 5.2 million children will be living in poverty by 2022, Britain’s deliberate and ideological understanding of disadvantaged children will only continue.

Double disadvantage

We know that on average, children who are entitled to Free Schools Meals (FSM) underachieve compared to their more affluent peers. Even as former Education Secretary Michael Gove once rather crassly put it, “rich, thick kids’ achieve much more than poor clever ones.” This layer of disadvantage is historical and through decades of misplaced policymaking, it remains somewhat expected or a comfortable fact in British education. Richard Tawney even referred to social class as the ‘hereditary curse’ of the English education system and this was in 1931. Sociologists Jackson and Marsden wrote about the class-specific role of education to police and pacify the disadvantaged and educate and liberate the most affluent. Despite our education having connotations of social mobility, social class inequalities have polarised Britain, with schools being a microcosm of wider society. The double disadvantage includes what could be referred to as the COVID-induced disadvantage. Sure, exams will take place but is it really a fair process? Some regions across the country are facing stringent local lockdowns, student and staff absences are high as people self-isolate. This entrenches inequality even further. Our pupils have missed six months of schooling in its full-time capacity but for the most disadvantaged who may not have access to the internet thus remote learning facilities, therefore this disadvantaged is doubled. Historical disadvantages could be challenged by radical changes to policies but don’t hold your breath. The COVID disadvantage could be challenged by policy and providing adequate resources, timer and space for these disadvantaged children to adequately catch-up, progress and blossom. A three extension to exams is like expecting Pupil Premium to equalise generations of inequalities. This is absurd. We cannot address the post-COVID inequalities without unpacking and tackling those prior to the pandemic.

Remaining ‘apolitical’

The final thought I had following yesterday’s announcement was actually a comment directed at me. I was told to “remain apolitical” and “just get on with it”. Apparently questioning political policies were against “mainstream edu-narratives” whatever that means. It is 2020, the year where we have conversations that matter, where we become comfortable with the uncomfortable and reflect in a deeper and more profound way. When did it ever become “political” to want to provide young people the best opportunity to succeed? We wear the weight of what we hear and seem – our experiences shape us. Whilst children walk into my classroom hungry and whilst little attempts to create a fairer society are in place, “apolitical” helps none of these children. Someone even had the audacity to say, “we are fed up with hearing about disadvantaged children.” I am fed up and exhausted with policies that fail to scratch the surface, also that my fellow professions being scapegoated for society’s evils and the mass fence-sitting and selective populism when it comes to dialogue about poverty, inequality, deprivation and disadvantage. We have to always keep in mind the contextual factors that make up our classrooms. The fact that we can track and trace these inequalities before the first bell hits. Even if we don’t challenge them so openly, I know my fellow teaching professionals will do so in their daily practice. We have been helping our learners ‘catch-up’ and make up ground before COVID and we will carry on doing so until a cure is found. For me, I will never stop talking about disadvantaged children. This is a cohort I was I once part of and an intellectual world I once inhabited. A man in a suit could never conceptualise let alone compensate for these hardships. With platform comes privilege and these disadvantaged children don’t need saviours, they need their voice heard. Time to scream at the top of out lungs like a siren. Do we develop selective amnesia as schools reopening and forget the antics of the media and politicians towards teachers?

In summary

The global pandemic has put teachers on the back foot and the announcement that GCSE and A-level exams will go ahead must be carefully considered. No one wants another algorithm shambles but after six months of remote learning, three weeks are not sufficient for teachers and learners. The wider structure of the education system needs to negate from the ideological moorings of high-stakes testing and reintroduce some alternative form of assessment. We may never see coursework return nor will teacher discretion through CAGs ever be fully respected, but with time ticking away, a DfE U-turn is definitely still on the cards. A three week delay to exams of simply plastering over the enormous chasms and canyons in education right now. These are wounds that need healing by taking teachers and students out the line of fire during such unprecedented times.

Are exams the fairest way to assess student progress? Do we place their futures in the hands of Gavin Williamson after the summer exam shambles or just keep calm and carry on? The lesser of the two evils is the latter which is a damning indictment of the educational policy making that has perpetuated and entrenched inequalities. It is shocking. We have deeper questions and reflections as educators, including if exams are even the most effective measure of a child’s progress? People in this country have the uncanny ability to be the voice of those they have no social attachment to. It’s frightening.

A final note on this disadvantaged children narrative. It has been peddled downstream but avoided the rapids. Until we consider wider contextual factors, structures and policies that have caused, maintained and sustained disadvantage, we are dangerously simplifying and depoliticising a debate about inequality. Disadvantaged children have been trying to ‘catch up’ for several decades, it is time we provide their teachers the support and guidance to take us out the line of fire.

Thank you for reading.

Shuaib Khan

Twitter: @shuaibkhan26

Podcast with Becky Bainbridge –

Enemy of the State article –

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