For democratic education! The exam fiasco, higher education and activism in schools

Since the Covid pandemic forced the cancellation of exams for GCSE and A-Level students this year, there has been confusion over how, if at all young people would be graded. Exams have come to play a decisive factor in an increasingly marketised education system. From primary school to universities, results and grades are used to rank educational centres by “performance”, whilst universities offer more conditional offers than they have places, relying on students missing their offers.

The mysterious algorithm that emerged to collate teachers’ assessments of their students with historical achievement of each school led to a massive downgrading for working class young people, while students at privileged private institutions rarely lost out at all. This exaggeration of an already discriminatory grading system quickly provoked outrage, with students organising demos up and down the country, demanding and soon winning a U-Turn from the government on awarding centre assessed grades for A-Level and GCSE Students.

Although the Labour Party and NEU declared victory, BTEC students still missed out on the regrading, and for many students the U-Turn came too late for their first choice university, and could not reverse the days of stress and uncertainty. People connected at different stages of education give their take on the fiasco, below:

Given the Government’s U-Turn, is this “victory”?

Miranda Williams,18, is an activist with the UK Student Climate network in Newcastle and received A-Level results this year:
The U -turn on the A Level results should be viewed as a victory for students and I hope my peers have realised the strength of youth power and protest: by fighting back, we put enough pressure on the government to listen to us. But we are still angry. It is already too late for many students who have fallen through the cracks due to Gavin Williamson’s ‘mistake’ and who are unable to make it in to their first- choice university this year, despite achieving the correct grades after the U -turn. We cannot fully view this as a victory until Gavin Williamson is sacked, there is guaranteed support for students whose futures were hijacked by the classist algorithm and there is a complete reboot of the education system.

Will “back to normal” improve things?

MW: The disregard for young people’s futures due to this recent unjust algorithm only highlights the ever-prevalent classism, racism and elitism within our education system. We cannot return to ‘normal’ if we are to eradicate these. On top of this, young people’s mental health should always take priority and a culture in which there are barely any opportunities for those who do not achieve the highest (i.e. those who are already the most privileged in the private schools) should be re-thought. In September, there needs to be real support for students on returning post lockdown and reduced content for the year below me. I hope that we begin to see a shift in curriculum – with more preparation for adult life, teaching on the climate crisis, and on black history. I also hope that young people will remember the way the Tories betrayed us – not only with exams, but their cuts and underfunding of youth and mental health services- and vote accordingly next election.

Are universities looking out for young people? 

Josh is a PhD student and precariously employed undergraduate teacher in Cambridge

Simply, put – no. Over the past three decades through the rush to raise fees and eliminate grants, student debt has now reached a staggering £120 Billion. For an average graduate this is expected to total a colossal £36,000; an amount that a graduate now can expect chained to them for anywhere up to 30 years. 

Albeit such decisions were made by past governments, there were those in the sector who welcomed this push given what it could mean for them. ‘Save the Student’ this year reported that on average monthly student outgoings were £807, with nearly 60% of that on rent alone; greater than the income from their student loan, with a majority share often being pumped back into their university. Like with all marketized models, the squeeze at the bottom directly benefits those at the top.

But fixing student finances alone is insufficient; the working conditions of university staff affect the learning conditions of students. With workload pressures sky-rocketing and a non-stop drive towards casualising university academic employment, it is no wonder that over-worked and under-paid staff are leaving higher education in record numbers. Despite this, university management roles have in this same time both grown in size and seen ever-inflating salaries. Last year saw one Vice Chancellor with a remuneration package worth £554,000, and an average of £380,000 across the 24 “Russell Group” universities. Further, support services for students remain miserably inadequate, with rising levels of stress and anxiety hitting students badly.

Whichever way we cut it; either living or learning, students are getting a raw deal, and as too are the majority of university staff who keep HE infrastructure running. Students and university staff should fight to tear this rotten system to the floor and rebuild it based on social need, and social good.

– What do we mean by democratic control of education?
Sacha Marten

I remember realising in Year 7 that I wouldn’t have any significant input into my education for several years, and even then, it wouldn’t be substantial. I chose to quit school and achieve my qualifications from home, so I could shape my own destiny and end the unequal relationship with schooling. This really isn’t an option available to most people, and wasn’t easy for me, as all the students who have had to move into home study as a result of the COVID pandemic will know.

In transforming education, it won’t be enough to merely reverse these cuts or rebuild the lost institutions as part of the Corbyn-era National Education Service, because if the Tories get back in, all the hard work to build that will be reversed too.

So how can we build a resilient education system that can defend itself against attacks from the government, and deliver for students and education workers? The simple answer is to democratise it. It’s in the best interests of students to learn, and teachers to teach, and the best way to do this is through mutual respect and consent. Classes and their teachers should decide what they’re going to work on, unencumbered by the whims of managers and ministers. This would mean students could decide what classes they want to take as soon as they are able (and before they’re able, there’s probably not much intensive learning to be done yet!) and they would, where possible, be able to choose which teacher teaches them.

Beyond that, through bolstered, grassroots unions for both education workers and students, every aspect could be managed by the people most directly connected with the institution. The political football of school dinners and their nutrition would no longer be an issue, and there wouldn’t be the situation where there’s plenty of money for the principal’s company car, but none to keep the library up to date. In fact, there would be no principal at all, which would definitely mean less dodgy exit scams like the one which almost destroyed my local FE college and cost the jobs of hardworking, long-suffering staff while the management ran to the bank.

Some might say this goal is unachievable, and maybe it is. But what’s the alternative? Continuing to botch a classist education system designed to be a Victorian workhouse-creche for the masses, but provide lessons in con-artistry for the elite, or to try and redesign education from the ground up for the people who live in it every day? A democratic education system means never again can a generation be robbed by exam system failures, gutting of the curriculum or chronic underfunding. It means never again does a person wanting to retrain in their adulthood have no option but debt or no education. It means that never again do we see teachers and students forced to work conditions which prove disastrous for their mental health and wellbeing, when education should be the most nourishing environment there is.

So let’s scrap the old system, it’s proven to be a failure, and let’s give a real, democratic education system a try.

– School is back in September – what should we expect, and look to build?

Abel Harvie-Clark, 19, was a climate striker in 2019 and now works in a hospital kitchen
Students are being told to begin the new school in totally unprecedented circumstances. Many scientists are reminding us the dangers of reopening education even with social distancing measures, whilst no one can quite believe that masks will last 5 minutes on the playground. On top of this, teachers are facing a string of attacks from the right-wing press, and students are rightly furious with the exam results situation. Pre-pandemic tens of thousands of students had already walked out of school as part of the youth strike for climate movement. The norms that sustain the established (victorian) school system are breaking down!

Many of the young people who stepped up to organise the results protests were in many places the same youths who have been organising school strikes for over a year now. This generation of teenagers is informed, aware and willing to act on the chaos that is unfolding around them. That kind of attitude will be important if responsibility for Covid-safety falls to independent action by students and staff.We should look to link up active, organised students with NEU branches, and support with resources and facilities that are difficult for young people to access.

The global Fridays for Future movement has called for a day of action on the 25th of September, and that certainly won’t be the limit of youth climate action. With the global situation becoming ever more critical, the energy and ambition of last years’ climate strikes needs to be rekindled, and taken up across the labour movement. Let’s help make this action on the 25th huge.

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