My response to Fiona Millar on why exam cheating is not the most pressing education issue

A Croce's picture
by A Croce
Over the last few weeks I have been berating Fiona Millar for focusing on exam cheating by schools. I disagreed with her view that it was really important. People may find that strange. However, my view is that exam cheating is a symptom and you don’t cure an ill by treating the symptom. Also, less than 65% of children achieve the benchmark of 5 A* to Cs at GCSE, so that’s 35% of children that exams are unlikely to be the start of academic path to their future career. That is over a 1/3rd of children, a considerable amount of children. For those two reasons I think that looking at the causes rather than symptoms is more important.
The last Labour government introduced league tables I presume their reasoning was to give parents choice and -putting it in the politest possible terms- to try to encourage schools to improve. In so many things there are unintended consequences, or even intended consequences. If a school introduced an expensive school uniform – parents often like smart school uniforms- the school can price out families who are struggling financially or have chaotic life-styles. It will also exclude families who do not value education, and “Hey Presto!” without having a selection policy you have already removed the children who may have more complex needs when it comes to education.
League tables do not solve the problems that schools face all they do is indicate which schools meet certain criteria. They don’t tell the tale of the experience of the students at that school. In focusing on the GCSEs and GCEs as a vital indicator schools are aware that if they look good on the league table they will attract the “right” kind of students i.e. ones that can meet the criteria of what makes a good school, so this becomes self perpetuating. Parents who value exams and expect their child to follow an academic path try to seek out schools that can offer this, parents who are not so engaged in education or do not have a choice send their child to the school selected for them.
The schools that are in areas of greater depravation where families have more pressing worries than education face greater difficulties in achieving these criteria for league tables. The Labour government developed the idea of academies to support these schools. Claiming that removing them from the strictures of the national agreement for working conditions for teachers the heads would be free to implement what was necessary to improve. Despite a lot of fanfares about how well this has worked the actual evidence is that it has not made a difference.
Now it has started to come out that some of the schools that have turned things around and have achieved amazing improvements in results have done this by slightly less than scrupulous means. To those in the profession this is no big surprise. You create high stakes some people will respond by gambling. Although the ultimate cause of this is not the league tables. They solved nothing. They just created a new set of problems.
Social inequality is the cause of the uneven quality of education provision, not “bad” teachers, not “poor” management. Society as a whole needs to admit this and address it and until it does teachers will continue to be made scapegoats and children will be thrown on the scrapheap because they did not achieve the gold standard of 5 A* to Cs at GCSE.
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