Exam results; time to face inconvenient truths – Chris McGovern

WHAT are we going to do about our Covid-ravaged, low-performing and directionless education system?

What more should be done to boost school standards and help pupils following the pandemic?

At the top end, around half of university graduates are either under-employed or unemployed or sometimes, it seems, unemployable. In addition, most are burdened with student loan debts averaging around £47,000 that they will never be able to repay.

Some 54 per cent of loans have already been written off by the Treasury. The total value of unpaid loans is around £150bn. Government statisticians predict this will rise to a staggering £560bn by the middle of the century.

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It is not only taxpayers who are losing out. A recent report by the Office for Students found that amongst young people, those who attended university are the least happy.

Gavin Williamson is the Education Secretary.

Widening dissatisfaction, disappointment and even despair is one consequence of the vast expansion of higher education. How extraordinary that the country is deluged with graduates at a time of acute shortages of skilled workers.

Nor are matters any more encouraging in our schools. It has been the poor and the less well-off who have been most hit by the months of lockdown. Many teachers have worked like Trojans to provide worthwhile online learning.

Learning provision, though, has varied considerably from school to school. Children of the better-off always have an advantage. Parental support, in particular, is inevitably uneven. Some parents, it is true, are feckless and uninterested in education, but these are comparatively few in number.

The fact is parents are genetically programmed to support their own kids. Real problems arise, however, when parents carry the scars of their own schooling. Too many of those living in relative poverty have literacy and numeracy skills that are too weak to allow them to be of much support to their children.

What more should be done to boost school standards and help pupils following the pandemic?

I should know, having worked closely with such parents. They want to do the best by their kids but were let down themselves by poor schooling. Too ashamed to admit to their own inadequacies, they are an unrecognised and ignored minority. If government wishes to stop under-privileged and under-performing children from falling further and further behind, it needs to implement an adult literacy and numeracy programme. The most effective way of helping the children of the poor to succeed is to give their parents the skills they missed out on at school and it is desperately sad that this necessity is not even spoken about.

Parental involvement underpins the educational success of the “super star” school systems of the Asia Pacific. To some extent, it also explains the success of immigrant communities both here and around the world. Far from pitying “the poor immigrants”, we should be immensely proud of their successes and the consequent contribution they make to our country.

A new report by the Institute for Government has castigated the Government for refusing to make “contingency” plans last summer for further lockdowns this school year. A central concern of the report is the failure by the Department for Education to have had a clear “fall-back” position if, as turned out to be the case, formal examinations could not be held this year. Given the Government’s addiction to schools lockdowns, it should have been obvious, a year ago, that traditional exams would not be possible in 2021.

How much better it would have been for pupils, parents and teachers if there could have been a bit of common sense and clarity within the Department for Education?

A-Level results are due to be published this week.

It would also more honest if we could stop describing this year’s and last year’s teacher assessments/predictions as “exam results”. They are no such thing! A recent study from London University and Oxford Brookes Business School concluded that predicting A-level grades accurately is a “near-impossible task”. A related study showed that, historically, only 16 per cent of university applicants are correctly predicted across three A-levels.

Applying the term “exam results” to this year’s teacher assessments/predictions is dishonest in the extreme. Having taught for 35 years, I have always found that most young people value something even more than good grades. Most of all they value honesty and truthfulness. The Department for Education needs to take its lead from young people. Instead, its presentation of exam results this year will take its lead from Groucho Marx: “The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

In order to improve our education system, we need to start facing up to some inconvenient truths and to cut out the political window dressing and fakery. Home truths are better than untruths, however painful.

Chris McGovern is chair of the Campaign for Real Education and a retired headteacher.

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