Published:

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs

In the midst of the media frenzy around vaccinations passports, the “pingdemic” and the long-awaited “Freedom Day” (which turned out to be no such thing), one story that has hasn’t received nearly enough scrutiny is what’s going on in our schools.

We all know that students have faced significant disruption over the past 16 months. On-off school closures, months of virtual-only learning, plus the farce that has become the “Covid bubble” scheme, have plunged many schools into crisis territory. It was reported yesterday that last Thursday there were over a million pupils off school, including 774,000 as a result of children being told to self-isolate. Some schools have been forced to close altogether.

It’s hard to overstate the impact this level of lost learning will have on children, yet the Government has consistently failed to put children first over the course of the pandemic, while the unions have warned against – and continue to stubbornly oppose – any easing of restrictions. Now, with the summer holidays fast approaching, pressure is mounting on the Government to find ways to claw back some of what has been lost.

It is regrettable that schools were ever forced to close, but there have since been some sensible recommendations made, including funding for extra tuition, and catch-up classes for those who have fallen behind. Predictably, when offered an extra £1.5 billion for such measures, the response from union officials was one of outrage at what they deemed to be a derisory sum.

Of course, it’s likely no amount of money will be enough to fix the level of damage that Covid restrictions have reaped on schools – there is no way of going back in time. But the Government’s education recovery commissioner has also proposed practical changes that will cost far less, including longer school days and changing the structure of the school year – both common-sense ideas that an IEA paper advocated earlier this year.

These suggestions were met with equal pushback, with teaching unions straight out of the traps to claim a 30-minute extension of the school day would do “more harm than good”. This, despite the fact longer school days have been shown to help disadvantaged pupils the most.

You would have thought – or naively hoped – that those dedicated to representing teachers, would rally around measures to help pupils. Instead, they’ve pushed for the strictest interpretation of Covid measures every step of the way, acting as a thorn in the Conservative government’s side. ‘Twas ever thus, I suppose.

However, there is one area where the unions have got on board with the Government: plans to make exams easier next summer. Proposals published by the Department for Education and Ofqual, which aim to address schooling disruption by “reducing pressure” on students and “freeing up teaching time” essentially amount to making examinations easier to pass.

They will do this by narrowing the scope of the curriculum that will be subject to examination and giving teachers the greenlight to tell students in advance what specific topics will be covered in their GCSE and A-Level exams.

Sure, shrewd students have always analysed past papers to discern which topics are most likely to reappear in their exam. But this effort to make exams easier will do nothing but create a false illusion of success. This may serve the short-term interests of teachers, students, parents and the Government, who will benefit from a perception that educational achievement has remained stable, but the longer-term consequences of this are deeply concerning.

Some may argue that this is little different from shifting the grade boundaries to reflect the relative difficulty of the paper, as happens every year. However, the consequences of manipulating results by limiting the scope of the exams themselves are of far more troubling consequence.

Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, said it is “right that next summer’s arrangements take into account the disruption young people have faced over the past 18 months”. But isn’t this a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted? Should we not assess pupils as rigorously as normal years? Only then can we understand the impact of Covid on educational outcomes. It seems the Government and some teaching representatives would rather sweep our problems under the carpet to save face.

In the next few years, we may find that we have large numbers of pupils leaving school without any real, in-depth knowledge of their subject. The knock-on effect on universities will be significant. School will send students off to university, knowing full well they have gaping holes in their understanding of what should, in normal times, be the basics. Will students spend the whole first year of their tuition catching up to A-Level standard? Will there be a need to extend the duration of the degree? Will universities now have to dumb down degrees to make up for lost time?

The impact on young people, the economy and wider society, of manipulating students’ achievements will store up big problems for the future, not least setting them up for deep disappointment when they realise their qualifications are worth less than those taken in previous years. Employers will also know full well that GCSEs and A Levels taken during the Covid years aren’t of the usual standard.

It is widely recognised that New Labour’s educational reforms made exams less rigorous. Some on the left still continue to dispute this for ideological reasons, but for anyone like me who has seen an O-Level French paper and a GCSE French paper side by side, there is no doubt.

It is understandable that the Government would want to ease the pressure on students during a pandemic, but if these planned changes to exams go ahead next summer, they may well take far longer to reverse. Why would it be in the interests of the unions, teachers or some parents to make exams harder once again?

It would be devastating for this country’s education system if, after Michael Gove spent so much time and energy attempting to reverse the legacy of the Blair years, Covid caused standards to slip once again.

Making it easier for students to pass their exams won’t reduce educational disparities in this country; grade inflation will encourage children to have a false sense of confidence in their own academic ability, and the buck will be passed to universities and their future employers.

Pressure must be put on the Government to restore exams to pre-pandemic standards as soon as possible, for the benefit of students, dedicated teachers and the wider economy.