What I’m learning about disadvantage, disparity and disruption*

*A phrase I’m borrowing from @chaloner88

Having led schools in challenging contexts for over 20 years I now have ‘no skin in the game’ but I find myself dismayed at what is unfurling.  I am watching in horror the comments on Twitter about how ‘exams must go ahead in 2021’.  It would seem that nothing has been learned, and that many of those who one would assume to be capable of nuanced and reasoned debate prefer to be wedded to positions which prevent any proper consideration of the problem.  I am left asking myself WHY?

Let me be clear at the outset that the ideal is that exams are able to go ahead and be a fair measure of the academic attainment and potential of our young people.  That is what everyone should aim for, but a blanket assertion that this should happen is  symptomatic of  the attitude which caused the chaos of last summer and, at best demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of what is going on in our most disadvantaged communities; at worst demonstrates a lack of care and a desperation to preserve advantage.

The ridiculous consultation last Spring from OFQAL, which asked all the wrong questions, was based on an algorithm bound to disadvantage students from the poorest communities.  They may have asked the wrong questions, but some of us still sent in responses which accurately predicted for them exactly what would happen if they stuck with it.  Needless to say it was one of those sorry occasions where there is no satisfaction in being proved right, and we were left with the absolute dog’s breakfast of results for the cohort which no-one feels are reliable.  The excuses I kept hearing when we challenged what they were proposing to do was that there was no better solution.  Nonsense – there were, but those of us willing to work on them were shut down, not involved and debate was closed.  And now there is no proper consideration of alternatives for 2021 other than ‘exams must go ahead because there is no fairer way’.  Nothing would appear to have been learned.

COVID has and is continuing to affect communities and schools disproportionately.  But that is on top of the already existing layers of disadvantage.  For students, like my own sixth form daughter, COVID has been a horrible thing to live through in the years when she should be socialising and enjoying young adulthood; but she attends a very good school in an affluent area, has great wifi, numerous devices, her own large study area at home, educated and supportive parents and elder siblings and has not had to self-isolate once.

For students in our most disadvantaged schools the picture has been very different.  Not only did they not have the conditions and resources to support home study during the long lockdown in the previous academic year, but they have also in many cases had severe and serious disruption to their education during this term with ‘bubbles’ collapsing and frequent episodes of self-isolation.  In addition the primary concerns of many schools in our most disadvantaged areas has had to be the safeguarding and welfare issues massively exacerbated during lockdown, rather than the academic progress of their students.  For those who have not worked in this context making judgments about ‘how schools provide online teaching’ seem to come all too easily.  The issue isn’t just lack of devices for students, although that in itself is a very serious inequity, but basic issues of health and welfare.  Headteachers working in the toughest of contexts are distraught.

We know that poor students in struggling schools are already severely disadvantaged, given this additional layer of disparity how on earth can exams been seen as the fairest solution? They are desired by those students and those school leaders who believe that they are reasonably prepared given the circumstances; but those circumstances are so wildly different across the cohort, proper alternatives need to be under consideration.

And here is the thing: consideration of the alternatives needs to involve, not just those who the current crop of ministers deem to be ‘the most successful school leaders’, their favoured ‘yes men and women’, statisticians and powerful voices (these are the ones who produced or supported last year’s algorithm, don’t forget), but also those who understand how disadvantage plays out and how to overcome it, who have experience of leading in the areas of greatest disadvantage, and who know how to reliably devise and standardise methods of assessing attainment and potential for progression without examining.

This work is urgently required because students and teachers need to know there will be something fair in place.  I know my own daughter has no confidence in exams going ahead – she wants them to, but doesn’t think they will.  So as a highly advantaged student, she finds herself in the worst of all possible worlds – having to treat every single assignment she is being given as though it is an exam in case it is used to grade her, and yet still assume she will be doing the exams.  And we wonder why we are in a mental health crisis with young people!  And for her less advantaged counterparts, without the necessary resource to complete each assignment as though it were an exam, and without the necessary teaching and preparation underway, due to COVID disruption, the situation will appear hopeless to them.

Our certainties have gone in this age of the pandemic and our job is to create as much security as we can for our young people and protect them.  To do this we need to be able to say: this is what we hope will happen, but if it can’t this is what will happen, and you can trust us.  I see no signs of anyone in government understanding this at all.

Above all what we need right now is school leaders to show empathy for ALL students, all colleagues, abandon ‘positioning’ and work for justice.

About rosmcm1962

30 years in teaching. Experienced Headteacher, Principal, Executive Principal, CEO of Academy Trust and NLE. Now working independently in the sector.
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