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Now we have the opportunity, we need to reinvent schools

It isn’t a ‘mutant algorithm’ that we have to worry about — it’s an education system that is designed to favour the most wealthy in society, writes ROBERT POOLE

THE summer holidays are normally a time when teachers can switch off and recharge their batteries ready for the autumn term.

This year that has not been the case. It has instead been a summer of Tory chaos.

The most recent education shambles — and I say most recent to distinguish it from the myriad other cock-ups that have taken place this year — has resulted in yet another Tory U-turn (I make that 12 so far).

The government has been forced into yet another embarrassing retreat this summer. This time over A-level and GCSE results.

Rather than trust teachers, it created an algorithm to decide the futures of our children. And — surprise, surprise — it has not worked.

Instead of providing fair and unbiased grades, it has instead replicated the inequality already endemic in society.

The result was that for A-level grades 40 per cent were lower than teachers’ assessments.

In any other period of time heads would roll. The education secretary would fall on his sword having overseen such a mess.

Instead Gavin Williamson seems to be clinging on for dear life. That said, looking at the current crop of Tory MPs, who would replace him?

At this point I’d rather his successor didn’t come from the back benches. Even Elon Musk’s pig with a brain chip could do a better job.

Refusing to resign, though, is nothing new to Williamson — he also refused to resign after allegedly leaking confidential government information, although it was something he has always denied.

He was then promptly sacked by Theresa May who claimed she had lost confidence in him.

Johnson, though, felt that the man once compared to the hapless Dad’s Army character Private Pike was the best person to trust with the education system. Stupid boy.

The algorithm was of course incredibly successful in one sense. It favoured schools with small cohorts; already successful schools and — quelle surprise — private schools, while struggling schools saw their results downgraded based on their performance in previous years.

Gifted pupils in difficult circumstances saw their hopes dashed — which is exactly what happens in our education system yearly.

What this year has done is brought into sharp focus the inequality inherent in society. The difference is that this time around we can pin the blame on an algorithm rather than have to discuss difficult topics like class inequality.

Johnson laid the blame on what he called a “mutant algorithm.” It is not, though, a mutant algorithm that is to blame but a toxic class-ridden education system.

The algorithm which managed to disproportionately disadvantage the already disadvantaged is not a one-off, an accident.

It is a morbid symptom of the economic and political system. It is a glaring example of the gross inequality in society but it is by no means the only way in which wealth and privilege manage to replicate themselves via the education system.

The most obvious example is private schools. Those bastions of class and luxury where wealth buy you a fast-track pass to the top jobs and an elite network of contacts.

There are many other ways, though, that the rich and powerful game the education system to their advantage.

Private tutors to help their children pass the 11+ or the ability to move home to the catchment areas of better schools.

Recent reports show that Covid-19 has caused the already massive gap in educational outcomes to even further widen.

In England the gap between working-class pupils and their wealthier peers widened by 46 per cent over the course of lockdown.

The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has released research showing that disadvantaged and black and minority ethnic (BAME) children have been the worst hit by the crisis.

What we need to do now is to plan for what will happen to pupils sitting exams in the summer of 2021.

As teachers, parents and trade unionists, we need to echo the call of the National Education Union that the government must make sure GCSE and A-level students in 2021 are rewarded for their achievements and none are disadvantaged by the coronavirus pandemic.

With schools returning this week, it is a time of much worry and concern for everyone, with the science still uncertain as to what the effect of school opening will be on the rates of Covid-19.

School leaders are again doing an amazing job in the circumstances with information given by the government on the Friday before a bank holiday and scant time to revisit plans.

Despite this, it can also be a time for schools to start to push for a change in our educational system. Someone who did just that was author and educationalist Sir Ken Robinson who passed away last month.

His theories have inspired generations of teachers, perhaps because they are the antithesis of the current education system. We should use this time to revisit some of his thoughts.

“Usually, the problem is not the learners — it’s the inherent bias of education and the enforced culture of schools.

“For generations, formal education has been systematically biased towards narrow forms of academic ability. The result is that it largely disregards the marvellous diversity of human talents and interests.

“For the past generation especially, politicians have been smothering schools in a depressing culture of standardisation.

“As a result, they have been marginalising the very capabilities our children need to create a more equitable and sustainable world — by which I mean creativity, compassion citizenship and collaboration … We have an opportunity now to rethink the whole ecosystem of education. We need to reinvent schools.”

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