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COVID-19’s Effect on Exams Will Reveal an Institutionally Racist Education System

With proposals for teachers to predict student grades, concerns have been raised about how bias will effect the life chances of those from poor and minority backgrounds

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COVID-19’s Effect on Exams Will Reveal an Institutionally Racist Education System

With proposals for teachers to predict student grades, concerns have been raised about how bias will effect the life chances of those from poor and minority backgrounds

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Little did I know when I attended my daughter’s last ever Year 11 parent’s evening that a global crisis was imminent and that her ethnicity could have a stronger impact on her GCSEs than we would ever have imagined.

As a qualified teacher and former deputy headteacher, I have witnessed the system underestimate and under-predict the grades of black and ethnic minority pupils without the required scrutiny.

I thought my knowledge of bias and my daughter’s intrepid skill of working well under pressure would suffice, but I am now apprehensive that she is at the mercy of a deeply flawed and institutionally racist education system and that there may be no opportunity for her school pudding to present its proof. 

Under recent proposals due to the COVID-19 pandemic, existing grade inequalities will be further exacerbated and entrenched. GCSEs will depend on calculated grades based on teacher assessment, subject to the exam regulator Ofqual’s standardisation across schools.

In other words, teachers will predict grades and exam boards will moderate. The buck for bias will lie, in part, with a teaching profession and decision-makers who are overwhelmingly white and male and who have not yet demonstrated diligence in this field.

In response to Ofqual’s consultation regarding grading, the Sutton Trust did find evidence of systemic bias against disadvantaged students. Michelle Meadows, the deputy chief regulator of Ofqual conceded that “there is some evidence of bias”.

My daughter’s already disadvantaged Class of 2020 now depends on the system not to ruin their chances more than ever. We wait, in hope, that results will be standardised in a fair and transparent manner.

Also concerning is the recent announcement of the possibility of students re-sitting GCSEs in the autumn. This will be stacked against poorer pupils who cannot, for example, afford to take time out of their education and is therefore likely to be unreasonable or unpractical for many black and ethnic minority pupils. 

There is plenty of research that demonstrates that black and ethnic minority youngsters are at a disadvantage from the onset and that this continues throughout their life. Statistics show that health inequalities start from birth and mortality rates remain higher for black and ethnic minority babies compared to white British babies.

The GCSE choices pupils makes in Year 9 start to pave the precarious path for the disadvantaged to underachieve in the future. This adversely affects their university and career choices and, ultimately, how much they can go on to earn.

The Nuffield Foundation has found that children from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to choose GCSEs that enable them to go to university, regardless of academic ability. When pupils move on to college, research from The Institute of Education outlines that ‘A’ level predictions are unreliable, with only one in six recorded as accurate. Other research by Burgess and Greaves concluded that ethnic minority children are under-assessed compared to their white counterparts so that they are more likely to score lower in subjective teacher assessments in school. 

Out of all minorities, black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi students are the most disadvantaged groups. According to a study by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, black pupils are the worst affected, experiencing the lowest predicted grade accuracy. Even more disturbing is that most parents from disadvantaged backgrounds do not have the resources, confidence or enough knowledge of the system to challenge under-predicting when their children experience it. 

Knowing all of this, we need to act quickly and responsibly to challenge and eliminate the structural and systemic bias which exists.

The Department for Education should also conduct an overhaul of our National Curriculum which breeds bias through its ignorance. If ethnic minority children feel devalued by being largely ignored in the academic discourse they study daily, then what does that say about the ones who devise the system? There is no shortage of expert black and ethnic minority historians, artists, scientists, authors and academics that we could utilise to enrich our curriculum.

A further underlying issue is staff and leadership teams ignoring discrimination against black and ethnic minority students in and out of school.

Measures such as employing more professionals and leaders from black and ethnic minority backgrounds within the sector and regular training for leadership and teachers in this area would be a step in the right direction. All involved from the top down – from the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to headteachers – must be held accountable if inequalities have not been actively addressed and improved on all levels.

On 20 August, I hope and pray that my dedicated daughter reaps the rewards of what she has worked so hard to achieve, despite the challenges.

Parents and carers feel powerless and the urgency of changing the racism that is embedded within our education system seems long overdue.

I feel it is my responsibility to support and speak up for my daughter, my previous pupils and for our future generations. They are at the mercy of flawed institutions and their future depends on how much we care about fairness and justice. 

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