Opinion

Why we need to look beyond grades

Over the last couple of days, there has been much anger directed at the government for the way in which its calculations for this year’s A-Level grades have targeted pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds, whilst benefiting those who attend independent schools. Almost 40% of grades assessed to be suitable by teachers were ultimately downgraded by Ofqual. Pupils at independent schools, like Eton College which the Prime Minister attended, were less likely to see their grades downgraded and saw the largest increase for grades A and above from 2019 to 2020. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has said that the grading system in place this year was ‘robust’ and ‘fair’. That word, ‘robust’, stands out particularly. It reminds me of Eton College’s motto “Floreat Etona” (“May Eton Flourish”), although an earlier version was “Esto perpetua” (“May it last forever”). The Conservative’s grading system was certainly ‘robust’ enough to sustain Eton’s privileged position. 

I share in the indignation felt by students right now. However, I also think that people and politicians should be more deeply critical of the education system itself. There is one point that I think is being somewhat lost in the current debate. Many commentators are suggesting that there are certain pupils (some would use the word ‘gifted’), who, had they done exams, would have achieved ‘good’ grades, but because they attend an ‘under-performing’ school, they have been underestimated. They have missed their ‘opportunity’, and, in the words of Keir Starmer, ‘something has gone horribly wrong’. Historian David Olusoga tweeted that if he had done his A-Levels in 2020, he would not have been able to go to university, and that ‘exams allow disadvantaged students to overcome low expectations’. Overall, there seems to be this idea that exams allow people to prove themselves, and it is the lack of exams this year – replaced instead with the calculations of a classist government – that has allowed inequalities to emerge more starkly.

In 1958 Michael Young coined the term ‘meritocracy’ (in a pejorative sense) in his satirical essay ‘The Rise of Meritocracy’. This term refers to a system whereby people are rewarded by their effort, hard work and ability, as opposed to the wealth or privilege that they were born into. It seems students, teachers and parents are angry at the government because pupils were not able to put in effort, hard work and to use their talent to get what they deserve. This notion seems to align with a meritocratic ideal. I feel uneasy with this argument for two reasons. 

Firstly, it is clear that we don’t live in a meritocratic society. Children who go to private schools get higher grades than those who do not, and that is true for every year, not just this one. The wealth and social class of your family contribute to your success, not just your hard work. That is not to say that people cannot succeed on ‘merit’ alone without wealth and privilege, but it does mean that wealth and privilege lead to a greater likelihood of ‘succeeding’. I have an issue with Olusoga’s statement that ‘exams allow students to overcome low expectations’ because I don’t think that it is true. It can be the case that exams might help some students overcome their circumstances, but it is unwise to overuse the idea that exams solve everything. According to the ‘Guide to Independent Schools’, sending your child to an independent school means they are more likely to achieve above average examination results. At independent schools, over 50% of pupils are awarded the grade A, while the national average is 25%. According to the Social Mobility Commission, ‘Britain’s most influential people are over 5 times more likely to have been to a fee-paying school than the general population. Just 7% of British people are privately educated, compared to two-fifths (39%) of those in top positions.’ So, although we evidently don’t live in a meritocratic society, we still honour this idea that if you work hard you can do well, because it seems we want it to be the case. 

This brings me to my second argument against the meritocratic ideal. I would argue that even a truly meritocratic approach would not necessarily be less unfair and divisive than a system like the current one, which favours you based on your privilege and wealth. Firstly, you can put in hard work, effort and tears into your studies and still not get ‘good’ grades. It is not just this year, but every single year that some students end their time at school in tears. Our perception of education centres around the idea that if you are ‘hardworking’ and perhaps ‘gifted’ you will get the grades that you ‘deserve’. So, if you don’t ‘get the grades’, is that because you are simply not hardworking or just unfortunately not gifted enough? Or is it both? What if it is neither? Our education standards are narrow and exclude the more creative and diverse abilities of many students. This is not fair. 

In fact, in 2001, Young wrote a similar criticism of the meritocratic ideal in the Guardian, stating that ‘It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have a merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.’ Exams and grades set people apart regardless of whether someone succeeds in them because of wealth or because they happen to be ‘gifted’. According to Young, exams and grades allow us to put a ‘seal of approval on a minority’ and a ‘seal of disapproval on the many who fail to shine from the time they are relegated to bottom streams at the age of seven or before’. The ‘bottoms streams’ he could be referring to is the system of setting children into classes of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ ability for subjects such as Maths and English. His phrase ‘seal of disapproval’ reminds me of the stereotype that poor people are lazy. It is not surprising that this stereotype exists if we think that you get what you deserve based on hard work and that ‘exams allow students to overcome low expectations’. It is also interesting that the media and the public generally tend to feel more comfortable with immigrants and refugees who ‘contribute’ to society and work hard.

At this point, I feel the conversation opens up deeper questions about the way our society works. Hard work is not intrinsically a bad thing, nor is rewarding hard work. However, if we want ‘success’ to be rewarded based on hard work and not based on wealth and privilege, if ‘success’ is wealth and privilege, is this not a slight catch-22? In order to be wealthy and have privilege, someone else must not be wealthy and must not have privilege. I think questions need to be raised about what education is for. Greta Thunberg’s refusal to attend school was particularly poignant because it asked the question: what exactly do you want me to achieve from my learning, and is it really for me?

The question of our education system, examinations, and the grading system is a difficult one. If you do well and it benefits you, you tend not to want to reject it: this is one of the reasons why it is so divisive. Gavin Williamson, for example, does not come from a particularly privileged background: he seemingly ‘worked hard’ enough and found himself in a very privileged position. This week, as Education Minister, Williamson has neglected those who come from a similar background to himself. You can see the division at play. 

I want to reiterate that I fully feel for students who have received their grades this year and are disappointed. They have been treated incredibly unfairly and unjustly. However, I also think it is critical to remember that injustice in the education system is not unique to this year. Keir Starmer said this week that ‘something has clearly gone horribly wrong’. I would say that something went horribly wrong a long time ago.