A is for Alpha

The UK news media always has a bun fight over the annual August A-level results, but this year’s turned into a bigger furore than usual. With schools closed due to Covid the exams had to be replaced by estimated grades based on the students’ but also the schools’ track records, in order to replicate the year-on-year average. Objections rapidly mounted that this ‘locked in’ existing biases which excluded talented outliers and underprivileged schools that had previously been making fast progress. When Scotland decided to rely on teacher assessments instead, predicted grades shot up well beyond what would normally be expected. Because of this well-meaning but blatant teacher bias, England refused to follow suit, prompting an even bigger row (BBC Online, 14 August – bbc.in/3kSHsQK).

It was an intriguing conundrum for the statisticians. There was no way to estimate grades that could be judged ‘fair’, because no algorithm could account for all biases and assumptions. But who says exam systems are fair anyway?

While disappointed students loudly complained about how they were ‘let down by the system’, and leftist opportunists immediately started screaming about ‘justice for students’, nothing was heard from the probably equal number of students who found themselves with better grades by not sitting the exam than they would have got if they’d sat it.

What everybody overlooked in the furore was that, of all the ways to assess what somebody knows about a subject, a competitive exam is probably the worst and the cruellest. Exams aren’t a test of knowledge, they’re a test of nerves.

Some students are ok with the exam regime. They’re the Alphas, just like in Huxley’s Brave New World, cool, collected, well-adjusted, organised, and able to cope with competitive stress. They’re most likely supported at home by motivated and well-off parents too. The exam system works for them just fine. In fact, it’s designed for them.

But it doesn’t work for those who dread exams like the dentist, the ones who don’t get the emotional support, the private tuition, the helicopter parenting, the ones who come from poor backgrounds and grow up thinking that education’s wasted on them, that they’re just silly, stupid girls or boys and that they’ll never amount to anything. Their main obstacle in any exam is fear of the exam itself. It doesn’t matter what they know or how smart they are because they fall to pieces whenever they open an exam paper.

But that’s also a victory for capitalism, because what keeps the system fit and trim is a working class who won’t fight back because they’ve been labelled as losers and so they spend their entire lives blaming themselves for not measuring up.

Capitalist education isn’t really education, it’s a factory system for workers that has no regard for their hopes or passions as it shunts them along its inhuman conveyor belt into its inhuman mincing machine. This year, at least, some of them might have got a free pass because the belt broke.


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