A level results and the subversion of truth – why Christian chaplains are dismayed

Under pressure of the current system, many schools are moving on from what in Christian terms are their core purposes – 'formation' and 'vocation'.Benjamin Voros/Unsplash

The Christian Church in Britain has long played a highly significant role in the provision of primary and secondary education, both maintained and independent. In all types of school a Christian chaplain is often a highly regarded member of staff, working alongside both students and staff, offering counsel to individuals and groups as well as representing the life of a school through liturgy, prayer, conversation and debate. School chaplains also 'speak truth to power' insofar as they may well convey messages that are unpopular with or hard to hear by vested interests with a school.

One of these messages may well be that not all students will achieve equally well in all areas of school life because there are innate differences between them.

Schools create periods of tension for individuals and themselves because they are very strongly focused on the attainment of specific academic goals within a background of social collaboration and the creation of coherent, law-abiding communities. For some students, schools are their only community.

State-funded schools, like so many other areas of our national life, are subject to the overview of politicians. Governments have narrow, short-term expectations of schools in terms of outcomes and the 'delivery' of a skill-set that makes future UK citizens economically fit for purpose within a globally competitive UK economy. Politicians have a vested interest in seeing state-funded schools succeed because of the huge national investment in them and success is generally measured in terms of academic outcomes which are expected to rise from year to year.

This has produced a whole 'industry' of data-processing, modified year on year, in order to monitor the performance of schools.

This has inexorably moved schools from what in Christian terms are their core purposes – 'formation' and 'vocation'. 'Formation' relates to the development of the whole human person, the growth of his or her qualities, attributes, knowledge and skills, a sense of being valued, and emotional, resilient self-knowledge. It also includes an understanding that we are – and have always been – known by God and that, despite life's many vicissitudes, God cares deeply for each and every one of us (Psalm 139).

'Vocation' relates to the purpose and direction of our lives and how this can be discerned by young people and shaped by those around them as they travel through and then emerge from their years at school. It also requires an understanding of appropriate, ethical behaviour for which the template is eloquently and succinctly set out in so much of Christ's teaching, in particular his ethical teaching best accessed through a reading of Matthew's Gospel, especially chapters 5-7, that culminate in Christ's 'Sermon on the Mount'.

In many schools there has developed an overweening culture of micro-management of teaching and learning. Many creative teachers feel increasingly unable to teach in ways that they know to be effective. The content of GCSE and A level syllabi is influenced by governments and the obsessions of particular politicians who are not education professionals. The mechanisms and transactions of teaching and learning are remorselessly analysed and new techniques endlessly projected upon both teachers and taught, sustained by a pseudo-science that hardly justifies its research pedigree.

Such is the pressure that this endless preoccupation imposes it is not surprising that schools experience tensions that are hard both for staff and students to bear. Mental illness among adolescents is at a worrying level. Added to this is the determination by politicians that the process and content of examinations should be modified to reduce the element of coursework, to make it unproductive for endless resits to be undertaken and to increase the academic rigour of syllabus material.

It has to be said that, to an extent, schools have brought this upon themselves. A levels have, accordingly, been reorganised so that AS papers no longer have to be taken as a prelude in the lower sixth or as multiple, freestanding courses. Under the AS/A2 system students had opportunities to assess their interim AS/A level progress and schools had become increasingly successful in raising student attainment to the point where 'grade inflation' became the mantra rather than a celebration of the success and hard work of both teachers and students. Now A levels are or will be examined much more through end of course examinations and the standard required for the highest grades has been raised.

This modification would have led to a reduction in the proportion of the highest A level grades this summer. In order to militate against what would appear as regression and relative failure in terms of school 'performance', the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulations (Ofqual) has revealed that grade boundaries have been lowered to ensure schools see a similar grade distribution to last year.

Ofqual's Chief Regulator, Sally Collier, is quoted in the Sunday Times as stating: 'The most important thing for our students is that they get the praise they deserve for having undertaken new courses of study, whether A-levels or GCSEs, and we recognise the work schools have done to get there and we are not detracted from that.' 

Professor Alan Smithers, of Buckingham University, is also quoted in the Sunday Times as stating by contrast: 'The whole point was to make the exams harder and identify the most able kids who could then thrive at top universities, not to perpetuate a broken system in which nearly all get prizes.'

All schools, even selective ones, contain a diversity of talent. It appears that a confusion has arisen between respecting and working with differences between individual students, while valuing them all equally (an essential tenet of Christian education), and believing that a grading system that appears to downgrade individual effort is to be sidestepped. Schools cannot be seen to be 'performing' any worse than in previous years because it would be failing to recognise the work that they have invested in the new system and it would be difficult to praise students for what they have done if it were to be judged inferior to that of their predecessors the year before.

Quite apart from revealing just how dangerous it is to separate the management of academic progress from those in schools and in examination boards who have true oversight of it, there is the even more insidious assumption that the outcomes of education are all about the 'bottom line'.

Good schools will nurture the talents of all their students at a level that is appropriate to them. The Christian analogy to this is the parable of the talents (Matthew 25: 14-30). Christ did not suggest that there was anything wrong with the unequal distribution of talents in the first place but he commented on what each individual 'servant' did with the talents with which he or she was endowed, praising those who invested their talents wisely and castigating the servant who failed to capitalise on what he or she had been given.

Schools have significant responsibility for the development of the talents that each of their students possesses but it should not be considered appropriate to massage examination performance figures so as to disguise the effects of a more rigorous examination system.

Chaplains observe the interplay of forces within and beyond schools. They observe just how important schools are for human flourishing. They look on, aghast, as politicians and leaders of quangos subvert truth and debase the true values of education.

Rev Gordon M W Parry is Director of the School Chaplains and Leaders Association and a former secondary headteacher.

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