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Want to judge people on merit? Then ignore their exam results

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

What do we mean by the phrases “good education” and “an educated person”? It is a surprisingly difficult and revealing question. Is it a set of academic credentials? Or does it mean preparedness for the workplace, someone who is likely to get a good job? Or does is it imply something much broader and harder to define – intellectual curiosity and an attitude of mind?

Having visited several secondary schools this month in very different parts of the country, I repeatedly heard teachers complain about the British exam system. Some of their criticisms were familiar, others quite new.

It now widely accepted that British pupils are excessively over-examined. Teachers are so busy focusing on examinations that there is little time left for education. Exam-led cramming has become the year-round norm – like an election campaign that consumes the whole political cycle. Exams are obviously necessary. But there is an optimal amount of assessment and it has been far exceeded. Grade inflation – notwithstanding this year’s controversial “crackdown” – is simply accepted as a fact.

Ticked off

Other side effects of over-examination are less well-known. There are now so many exam scripts to process that exam boards can’t afford to pay people properly to mark the papers. So the number of experienced, reliable examiners has been reduced. Furthermore, given the prescriptive rules of “grid marking”, it is a risk for pupils to engage too intellectually. One teacher told me with regret that she had to advise her most academic pupil not to display her full intellectual range: in order to secure all the ticks, first you have to stop thinking freely.

As the standard of marking has declined, grades are awarded with increasing randomness. It is an unfortunate irony: in our age of credentialism, exams have never mattered more. And yet they have never been more unreliable as gauges of academic quality.

There is a much deeper problem with exam-dominated education. Credentialism has not continued to expand opportunity. The more closely universities select school leavers according to their exam grades – and the more strictly employers award jobs to people with the best degrees – the more likely it is that savvy middle-class parents will find a way to play the system according to their children’s interests.

Given the lengths these parents will go to in order to engineer superb grades for their children – private tutors, cramming, re-marks, re-sits – a bald set of results on a piece of paper now means remarkably little. The correlation between exam results and intelligence has been steadily weakening. Coursework, for example, was supposed to reduce the stress of a daunting exam season. In reality, it has worked in favour of pupils with pushy parents and experienced teachers who know how to push the boundaries of “internal assessment”.

Credentialism was supposed to be a fairer alternative to the winks and nudges of the old-boy network. But the idea has turned full circle. It now plays into the hands of people who have the energy and inside knowledge to navigate the system. Entrenched interests are always the fastest to adapt to new rules of social and economic advancement.

David Willetts made a similar point in his essay The Future of Meritocracy in 2006: “Over the past 20 years, Britain has seen a big increase in the earnings of graduates relative to non-graduates. It does indeed look as though the expansion in higher education has meant, above all, more places for students from more affluent backgrounds rather than students from poorer backgrounds . . . This means that the expansion of higher education has not increased social mobility but, if anything, has contributed to its decline.”

This uncomfortable argument leads to a counterintuitive solution: potential, not just performance, should play a greater role in the distribution of university places (and jobs). Sadly, only a few educational institutions, such as Harvard, have the conviction and financial resources to follow this logic to its conclusion. The Harvard admissions process is famously dismissive of high-school grades, placing more emphasis on its own interview system. When he was invited to observe the Harvard admissions process, Peter Lampl (who founded the educational charity the Sutton Trust) was struck by how Harvard awarded places according to character and potential rather than pure exam results. When he asked why one girl was admitted despite her relatively poor grades, the tutor for admissions replied: “We think she will do great things, perhaps become the mayor of a major city.” Harvard focused on the contribution the undergraduate would make – not just at university but in civic society.

Brown nosy

Ironically, Gordon Brown’s infamous intervention in the Laura Spence affair in 1999 grasped exactly the wrong end of the stick. Brown objected to the idea that a state-educated candidate could have flawless academic grades yet still be rejected by Magdalen College, Oxford. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that particular example, Brown would have better advanced the meritocratic agenda by advocating a general loosening of the link between exam grades and university admissions. On average – given how effectively private schools deliver impeccable exam results – pupils such as Spence would have more chance of getting in to Oxbridge colleges if academic grades carried less weight, not more.

Trying vainly to turn education into an exact science that can be measured precisely does not make it fairer. Instead, it reduces the scope for far-sighted universities and employers to back their judgement.

There is a further dimension to the problem of credentialism. It encourages life’s winners to underestimate their good fortune and to overrate the extent to which they deserve their success. Far from advancing talent over privilege, credentialism has strengthened the grip of people already at the top.

Ed Smith’s “Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters” is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference special

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide