After vowing just last month that A-Levels and GCSEs would not be cancelled, Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, has announced that this year they will be replaced by teacher assessment due to the continuing COVID-19 crisis. The proposed assessments will look at homework, tests, mock exams and teacher observations. This comes after the devastation caused by last year’s exam cancellation which led to many pupils across the country receiving significantly lower grades than had been given by teachers and A-Level students losing their university offers. Most disturbingly, the algorithm used to produce these grades disproportionately affected pupils in state comprehensive schools.
Even after a switch to school assessments following an outcry about initial results, private school pupils still benefited more than others. Now, Mr Williamson says he is putting “trust in teachers rather than algorithms” with training given to them to ensure fair and consistent grading. Nevertheless, many students still fear the worst with their futures left up to teachers' opinions rather than the usual standardised testing.
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After the outright shambles of last year, students are right to fear the worst – especially those from already disadvantaged backgrounds. Sociologists of education have studied the effects of teacher labelling for decades and consistently found it to negatively affect outcomes of ethnic minority and/or working class pupils even with standardised testing in place. Putting all the power in teacher hands can only worsen this effect.
In fact, in 2000 researchers, David Gillborn and Heidi Safia Mirza, co-authored a national report on race, class and gender inequalities in education. They found that, in 1999, of 6 local authorities that carried out ‘baseline’ assessments for pupils entering compulsory education for the first time, just one of these reported Black children as the highest achieving of all groups. However, with the 2003/2004 introduction of the Foundation Stage Profile (FSP), baseline assessments prior to entry to primary school were replaced by teacher judgements made at ages 5, 7, 11, 14 and 16. By 2005 ethnic inequalities in education had grown and most minority groups were scored below the national average. The formerly high achieving Black students were now amongst the lowest ranked groups.
The FSP had given greater opportunity for racist stereotypes to influence Black children’s attainment. In other research, Gillborn notes that although teachers may not be intentionally racist, they often had racialised expectations of Black students. Teacher expectations can manifest as a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby pupils become aware of low expectations by virtue of race or class and end up meeting them. Or teachers might read behaviour of Black pupils through the lens of racist stereotypes labelling them as aggressive or disruptive instead of prioritising academic concerns. Such expectations place a teacher-imposed cap on pupil potential.
As a Black student myself, I can recall what might have been the worst parents' evening of my life in which multiple white teachers complained about behavioural issues that they claimed would affect my grades - paying no attention to the fact I had been attaining highly regardless of this. Rather unsurprisingly, I went onto achieve highly in my GCSEs. However, I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if these teachers had been allowed to decide my fate based on my alleged bad behaviour and a few bad homework assignments.
Whether through academic research or talking about our experiences on social media, Black pupils have a heightened awareness of the discriminatory way teachers treat us. Some are, justifiably, worn down by the constant low expectations whilst some try their best to ignore it and continue to navigate education how they see fit in order to reach their own goals. But in both instances, teacher assessments pose a huge threat to individual achievement. The racialised and class based expectations that teachers have are simply reflective of racism and classism in wider society.
The education system - nor the teachers within it - does not exist in a vacuum, it is one of many streams of reproducing and maintaining hierarchies of oppression. The British government cannot feign ignorance towards this. Piles upon piles of research and first-hand experiences show this to be the case. Yet all students are given is a weak promise that, despite the discrimination they live and breathe, this time around things will be fair.
At its core, this is not an issue of particularly racist or classist teachers, or a specific attempt to disadvantage already marginalised communities. Sadly, what we are seeing is just one of many manifestations of an already hierarchised education system. It has long been the case that one’s class and/or race will affect their educational outcomes. The danger here, however, is how many more people will suffer because of it. The opportunity to escape teacher labelling has now been eradicated entirely, leaving the already precarious futures of a generation of marginalised youth looking even more destitute.
Written by Christiana Ajai