Much has been written about the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic upon various facets of everyday social life and of the inequalities that it is exacerbating. Lay, media and political discourse has been slow to challenge the narrative that we are ‘all in this together’ and as such the unequal class impacts of COVID-19 go largely unmentioned, discussed and debated.
Within education, attention has been accorded to the implications of school closures upon the increased risk of hunger within the home. However, class inequalities in education do not stop at the canteen hall; they extend well beyond and the current proposals to award summer qualifications serve to further fuel such inequality. This piece uses personal biography to problematise the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) guidance whilst also serving as a call to action not only within the field of the sociology of education but beyond.
Problematising Student Ranking, Performance Judgements and School Standardisation
On April 3rd Ofqual published guidance about how GCSEs, AS and A levels are to be awarded in England. A process that “must reflect a fair, reasonable and carefully considered judgement of the most likely grade a student would have achieved if they had sat their exams this summer” (Ofqual 2020: 4) using a range of available evidence sources in order to arrive at a “balanced view”.
In addition, schools will also need to provide “the rank order of students within each grade” (Ofqual 2020b:5). Ofqual will then subject the centre assessments grades to a standardisation module. This module, although currently being developed will take into account the prior attainment of students at each school and college (as a cohort) and the results of the school / college in previous recent years and “the process will also recognise the past performance of schools and colleges” (Ofqual 2020a). Herein lay the problematic nature of the proposed methodology.
Firstly, predicted grades even when based on past results are often inaccurate. Recent research from UCL highlighted that only 16% of A-level grades are accurate and that 75% of students receive predictions that are over-inflated, with ‘high achieving’ students from disadvantaged backgrounds being awarded lower predicted grades than their privileged counterparts.
With regards to A-levels, a publication by the Sutton Trust recently reported that around 3,000 disadvantaged, ‘high-achieving’ students have their grades under-predicted. In short, high-attaining disadvantaged students are more likely to have their grades under-predicted than their richer counterparts – we could expand this argument to also include the predicted ranking of students that Ofqual currently requires .
Secondly, it illustrates the role that the educational market plays in ascribing, perpetuating and polarising educational success and failure at time when the past performance of a school is being drawn upon as a tool to calculate students examination grades. In essence, under the current Ofqual modelling students are being rewarded or punished for attending an idealised or demonised school by way of their institutions past examination results given the implications of the schools past performance upon their summer 2020 grade.
In 2010 I sat my final year A-levels and surpassed them by as much as 4 grade boundaries; having been predicted three D grades, I achieved A*, A and B. My predicted grades were a result of my status at the local grammar school as a visiting student and prior GCSE grades. I had come from the local failing ‘special measures’ comprehensive ‘down the road’ as I did not possess the required GCSE prerequisites to gain formal entrance. This anecdote is not intended as a self-congratulatory, narcissistic pat on the back. It is, however, intended to serve as an example of why the current model of examination grade allocation is problematic as I explain below.
I was part of the 17% of my school year that obtained 5 A*-C GCSEs or equivalent and one of just a small handful of students who stayed on for sixth form. However, in my case, my attendance at sixth form meant attending the classes offered at the Grammar School for Girls and Grammar School for Boys that my mixed ‘sink comprehensive’ was sandwiched between. Had COVID-19 happened a decade earlier, Ofquals attempts to take into account my school’s prior results and my prior grade attainment would have been detrimental to my final A-level grades. I simply would not have been afforded the opportunity to surpass my predicted grades and buck the trend of my school’s overall prior attainment in previous years – key components in Ofquals standardisation modelling and calculation of grades.
While Nelson Mandela said that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”, I can’t help but feel that, for this year, education’s powerful ability to unexpectedly change the lives of some working-class kids’ lives will be put on hold at best or unknowingly cancelled at worst. Students from disadvantaged social groups (be it BAME and/or working-class) will not be afforded the opportunity to surpass their predicted grades and overcome the associated effects of labelling, unconscious biases and the postcode lottery of attending a ‘good’ school. Issues that sociologists have long sought to cast light upon; as someone who was afforded this unknowing opportunity, this hurts.
Class War, COVID-19 and a Call to Action
Scambler has written of the way in which COVID-19 is once-in-a-generation challenge for epidemiologists; it is also a once-in-a-generation challenge for sociologists. It is our responsibility to ask difficult questions, to hold the Government to account, and to cast light upon the way that, within the field of education (and indeed elsewhere), coronavirus is not only giving way to inequalities, but is serving – and will continue to serve – as a catalyst deepening existing ones. Judith Butler has spoken of how “the virus alone does not discriminate, but we humans surely do, formed and animated as we are by the interlocking powers of nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and capitalism” and, I wish to add, the powers of class and class struggle.
Middle-class social reproduction through education is nothing new, despite furious downplay and denial. It is no surprise that, in the midst of this pandemic, we are already witnessing the mobilisation of middle-class social, cultural and financial capitals – however well-intended. My Facebook newsfeed is a testament to this and serves as a digital representation of how I straddle two class fields. On one side, my university peers and middle-class colleagues offer their services and teachers share tips on how they are home schooling their children or employing newly out-of-work nursery nurses as nannies. On the other side, my friends from my working-class milieu are left at home wondering how they are to entertain their children on a low budget and with no computer – let alone educate them.
Coronavirus is currently constructed as a fight to be had by all. Notions of togetherness and community have worked to mobilise a national feeling that we are all in this together and that we are all to play our part by way of social distancing, crowdfunding (among much else) for the NHS and the health of the nation as a whole. I cannot help but feel that while we are indeed at war with COVID-19, it is one marked by class. Though a global pandemic, class (and on a global level geopolitics) underpins the reality of who feels the effects deepest and who is left to endure the legacy of its inequities for the longest – and education is one such field that will be marked by class inequality exacerbated by the pandemic beyond this snapshot in time.
As sociologists we must give attention to the ways in which the legacy of COVID-19 will manifest beyond the obvious (education is all but one such area). We must not allow the situation to unravel, to swoop in post- coronavirus with self-serving, career-promoting studies under the guise of intellectual curiosity and sociological fascination.
There will, without a doubt, be lessons to be learned post COVID-19; reflecting back sociologically or otherwise will be the method of achieving this. But right now, sociologists must strive to respond, intervene and advise in real time. As sociologists, we must take our knowledge outside of the ivory tower to cast light on the unintended consequences of COVID-19 upon educational inequalities and the myriad ways they will play out in the lives of working-class people over the coming months and years. It is our job to not simply reflect back with our sociological imagination, but to be a critical voice in the moment.
Ofqual (2020) Summer 2020 grades for GCSE, AS and A level, Extended Project Qualification and Advanced Extension Award in maths Information for Heads of Centre, Heads of Department and teachers on the submission of Centre assessment grades. Available here.
Carli Rowell is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Sussex. Carli is a sociologist, feminist and ethnographer and much of her work grapples with issues pertaining to contemporary social, spatial and geopolitical (im)mobilities particularly in relation to educational (in)equalities on a global, national and local level. Twitter: @carliriarowell
Image Credit: Jessica Lewis from Unsplash