The insanity of school league tables

From cheating in public schools to expulsion of ‘weaker’ students in state schools – competition in education is the enemy of true excellence.

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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Exam cheating has been exposed in at least three elite fee-paying British schools: Eton college, Winchester college, and Charterhouse school.

The Cambridge International Exams Board is investigating what happened at Charterhouse, while the deputy head at Eton, Mo Tanweer, has been sacked and the head of art history at Winchester, Laurence Wolff has been suspended.

The Eton deputy headmaster sat on the board that sets the exam questions for the Cambridge International Pre-U economics exam. He had then shared upcoming exam questions with some of his fellow teachers and these were then forwarded to students. Winchester’s head of art was also suspended owing to his giving his students information about upcoming exam questions.

Initially, this scandal had only included the illustrious Eton college, famous for being the school of many prominent members of the ruling class and of parliament such as former prime minister David Cameron and foreign secretary Boris Johnson. However, the cheating scandal quickly grew to include the other two schools, raising the questions of how long has this been going on and to what extent it is taking place at other fee-paying schools?

More to the point: why is this happening?

Many other stories have also emerged that describe a growing cut-throat culture in education that is also affecting state and independent schools. The story of Peter and Amanda Williams, who were on holiday in South Africa when they received a call about their son’s mid-course AS examination results (taken half way through the two-year A-level course at age 17), and were informed that he would no longer be allowed to continue at his college, is an experience shared by a growing number of parents.

The cutting off of students who may have only received perhaps two Ds for their mid-course results appears to be driven by a desperate obsession for schools to protect their rankings in the league tables. After all, if all the students who might get lower grades are stopped from entering their exams, the school is protected from the risk of having its averages brought down.

This is the logical outcome of selection in education: a ruthless discarding of any child who fails to shine in examinations, and an equally ruthless obsession with results and rankings.

This mania for maintaining an elite standing in the league tables also goes some way to explaining the cheating habits being practised at Eton and other elite schools. Since they already declare themselves as being schools for the upper echelons, they have to match that in results, and presumably the parents paying the bill, which is comfortably over £30,000 a year, expect to see a return on their investment.

The blatant sharing of exam questions – and the presumably fairly common practice of hiring teachers who sit on exam boards – is the logical outcome of treating education as a commodity. If ‘success’ in education is measured by exam results and by admissions into the top universities, no doubt one expects to get what one has paid for.

It is clear that fierce competition for decent jobs, combined with privatisation and rationing in education, is leading to an equally fierce competition among students and schools. This has led inexorably to a culture of manipulating results by any means necessary, ultimately damaging education for all and putting the needs of employers above the healthy all-round development of society’s children.

All this goes to show the absurdity of the bourgeois concept of trying to ‘improve’ the quality of educational provision by subjecting educational establishments to market forces through the publication of league tables. At best such a system is hit and miss. It is a system that subjects teachers and pupils alike to insecurity and anxiety, while being entirely bereft of scientific content.

The obvious way of bringing about genuine improvements in educational services is through a system of inspection and continual professional training to correct inadequacies: ie, support for teachers and schools rather than punitive measures, and through the improvement of educational provision for all rather than simply for those who can afford to pay.

That is the rational way, the socialist way, as was practised for instance in the Soviet Union to produce universal high-class education. But the capitalist system has outlived its usefulness and rarely resorts to rationality, preferring the lottery of market forces.

Nor does capitalism have any interest in providing a high quality education to sections of the population that are likely to end up on the dole queue owing to the scarcity of jobs. Far better for such ‘surplus’ labourers to be given the message early on that they, and not the system, have failed, and thus are entirely deserving of their fate.

This shameful waste of human potential is amongst the most scandalous crimes of the present system, and is one more reason why workers urgently need to remove the blight of capitalist production relations from society once and for all.