The hysterical criticism of results show class-based elitism is alive and well

19 Aug 2021, 12:00

The cries of foul among some critics about last week’s results are completely out of proportion, writes Tom Bewick

It’s been another August like no other. As the hubbub from last week dies down a little, it’s worth reflecting on how it differs to the summer that went before. 

Last summer,  we first of all had the “exams fiasco”. Ministers all across the UK’s devolved education systems were forced into a set of last-minute, highly embarrassing U-turns.  

But back in 2020, the media and Westminster-based commentariat were much more empathetic with students’ plight.  

However this year, the intergenerational academic snobbery has been on full display. There have been various politicians and pundits frothing at the mouth about grade inflation, declaring A-Level and GCSE results “devalued” and “meaningless”.  

By contrast, last year the change in policy helped restore faith in these extraordinary arrangements for those most affected by them — learners.  

After all, no other generation has had to put up with as much disruption as this cohort of students. With formal examinations cancelled again this summer, the only sensible model on offer was teacher-assessed grades. 

Despite this, the Oxbridge-educated Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson wrote a diatribe this year to bemoan the “all must have prizes” syndrome that has infected the education establishment.  

And the political correspondent, Tom Harwood, launched a one-man Twitter tirade, calling for top grades to be fixed at low quartile percentages, like the finite number of medals handed out at the Olympics.  

The hysterical reaction underpinning both these kind of arguments is, in my view, clear evidence that class-based elitism is alive and well in Britain today.  

It’s the boneheaded belief that only a few must be allowed to succeed. The rest of us plebs are to be put in our place with, “sorry, old bean, your offspring don’t quite meet the grade.”  

Totally predictable and positively Darwinian in nature.  

Of course, exams are there to objectively assess performance and differentiate between candidates.  

And where you have, in effect, a rationing system of access to top university courses, independently marked exams are still one of the fairest ways of distributing ‘positional goods’ amongst the population. The alternative would be money and nepotism.  

But where the elitist argument falls flat on its face is the notion that in any single cohort of human beings, there is an artificially fixed amount of people who can succeed in the task that is being put before them.  

One useful analogy that helps debunk this myth is the climbing of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest summit at 29,000 feet.  

In 1953, Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay became the first recorded people in history to conquer the challenge.  

Since then, nearly 7,000 climbers have done it, with an average of 800 people who attempt the summit each year. On that measure, the attainment of this singular goal has resulted in massive climbing inflation compared to Hilary’s time.  

Yet, the peak itself has not got any smaller. Instead, humans have learnt how to adapt. They are equipped in different ways.  

The same is the case in relation to those passing A-levels these days.  

The challenge is broadly the same as when these qualifications were first awarded in 1951, except teaching, learning and assessment models have adapted to take on the test over time. 

Critics argue that this is a corruption of the system.

But who would seriously argue that a sailor who has circumnavigated the globe using GPS is any less worthy of the achievement than when Ferdinand Magellan first managed it with a crude astrolabe in the sixteenth century?  

The truth is assessment systems are no different.  

Our alternative assessment system was always going to result in significantly higher grade results compared to previous cohorts. It’s just wrong-headed to make straight comparisons with other years. 

These angry critics must adapt to the world we live in today, not some imagined golden age of cucumber sandwiches and dreaming spires – where only the lucky few should advance. 

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