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There’s been much ado about marking

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Issue 1764

What socialists say

There’s been much ado about marking

IT HAS become an annual ritual. The GCSE results are released for hundreds of thousands of 16 year olds. TV cameras show images of excited teenagers tearing open envelopes. The papers carry stories about talented children taking exams before they’ve left primary school, and long lists of the supposedly best schools.

Not surprisingly these are headed by grammar schools and selective schools posing as comprehensives (like the London Oratory attended by the Blair boys). And then there is a chorus of right wing commentators complaining that the results do not mean anything because the exams have been “dumbed down”. This year was no exception. The Daily Telegraph, edited by old Etonian Charles Moore, had no doubts. “Achieving an A to C grade has never been easier,” it assured its readers.

The main right wing gripe is that exams are different to what exams were like decades ago, and so must be easier. It is a ludicrous argument. When I went to school, a big chunk of maths consisted in multiplying and dividing tons by hundredweights and pounds by pounds, shillings and pence. We also had to know about rods, polls and perches (not the fish!), chains and furlongs.

Today, thank goodness, metrification means school students have much more important things to worry about in maths classes. This makes it impossible to compare exam papers then and now. The right claim schools try to fiddle the results and exam boards connive with them in this.

Some fiddling may well occur. The whole system operates upon classic market principles. The schools are competing with each other to do well in league tables, and the exam boards are private bodies competing with each other to get schools to use their exams.

Each will be tempted by practices close to fraud just as surely as if they were selling cars, cheese or the Daily Telegraph. But, again, schools always tried to bend the rules. I remember my A-level zoology exam. Three days before we were given a rush lesson on dissecting the dogfish.

And what was the exam about? The dissection of the dogfish’s dorsal nerve! A sheer coincidence, of course, and nothing to do with the school knowing it had to order a supply of dogfish for the exam. This was, incidentally, at a school that still heads the league tables of one of the right wing papers. The argument, in reality, has nothing to do with rising or falling standards. It is about one of the central ideological arguments of the traditional right (which today includes a huge chunk of New Labour).

This is the claim that the division in society between those who are privileged and those who are not is a division based upon differences in natural ability. Just as there are only a small minority of rich people, so there are only a small minority of able people. This is a fact of human nature, they insist, that nothing can change.

So in the “good old days” before comprehensive education, the children of the really rich went to public schools (as they still do), the children of the middle class went to grammar schools, and the children of the manual working class, with a few exceptions, went to secondary modern schools. The examination system was built about this divide. O-level exams preceded GCSEs.

Roughly the same proportion of children that came from the middle classes took O-levels and went to grammar schools. But then the needs of capitalism changed.

Many manual working class jobs were replaced by white collar working class jobs, and required more school learning than ever before, even if the wage cheques were no bigger.

Governments, Labour and Tory alike, exerted pressure to ensure the biggest possible number of children stayed on at school and took the exams.

The numbers getting O-levels rose from 22 percent to 25 percent between 1950 and 1988, and the numbers getting GCSE A-C has since risen to 57.1 percent. The number of supposedly super-able people has doubled, while the number of really privileged middle class jobs has shrunk. This undermines the right wing argument. So they have to make a song and dance abut declining standards.

The socialist response is very different. Every human individual is different to every other, but we are not separate, cast iron groups with fixed abilities. Everybody has all sorts of capacities that are simply not developed at present. The exam results are a proof of this. Not that the exam system is a good thing. It trains people for the competition of capitalism, not to cooperate together to achieve their full potential.

That’s why it fails nearly half those who take part in it, and often screws up the lives of those who succeed. But that’s another argument.

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