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If we had an “emotionometer” right now, today here in the UK it would be off the charts. We have thousands of students being graded on a basis cobbled together by people in difficult circumstances who appear to be slaves to a system.

There will be joy, heartbreak and anger. Why?

Of course it’s difficult. Covid isn’t personal, it’s an event and an indicator of how fragile the systems we design so carefully are. We cannot choose what happens to us, but we can choose how we respond.

How we respond speaks volumes as to our clarity of purpose, and thought.

Putting the system to one side for a moment, what we have is simple.

  • We have students who have put years of work and effort into passing exams they haven’t been able to take. Not being able to take them does not remove their effort, understanding or capability.
  • We have Universities and employers in need of the talent that is in the wings. Exam results help them select, but do not determine their selection. The real proof of a University or employer is what happens to someone whilst they are part of it. Good universities catalyse learning in students, and good employers harness talent.
  • If, for sake of argument, Universities have to accept students without the comfort blanket of exam results, it will change little except that for a year their performance tables might see a blip, but if they maintain standards, the output will be consistent, although their “conversion rate” might (and only might) fall. We might, just might, have fewer graduates at the levels forecast for one year. The system will be miffed.
  • It’s not as though we have no reference points. We have historic, if variable data, and real time assessments of professional teachers. We’re not guessing. It’s just like the harvest – sometimes the weather affects it. It doesn’t mean we refuse the reduced crop.

So what is going on here? What, in ten years time, will be the net effect of one year of disruption? For whose benefit does the system exist? Is it really this arthritic?

It feels like we have built a system to serve us which we are now serving. The servant has become the master. We have politicians floundering, and the high priests of education in a tizzy as they try to ensure the system is happy.

The education industry we have created is short of raw material this year, for a number of reasons, mostly culpable. We have capacity. We have reference points. We have need. It’s one year.

The worst that might happen is that some students get lucky, and get to go to somewhere they might not otherwise have got into. Getting through the course is then down to them. Getting in does not guarantee graduation, and as long as the Universities uphold standards (and don’t compromise to keep the system and their performance targets happy) little harm will be done.

Imagination. Vision. Clarity. Leadership.

Would’t that be good?

The Machine Part Fallacy

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Right now, huge amounts of effort, airtime and emotion are being expended over how fair the exam results are for our children who have not been able to sit formal exams due to the disruption caused by our reactions to COVID.

We are obsessed by how this years results might compare to last years results, or set a precedent for next years.

So, why I wonder does it matter so much? In the end, there are a finite number of University places, Apprenticeships and job openings, and the system will flex to allocate places. There is a market, and the market works.

The fact that relative to other years the grades may be an anomaly is of minor importance at a practical level, other than for those operate the machine and would rather use algorithms than make decisions.

Based on what? An assessment of years of work determined by a short exam, or by teachers who know the pupil, their character and the standards required?

For the benefit of whom? The pupil, the employer, our society, or for those who would like to pretend they are in control?

By 2025 the fate of those who are getting results this week will have been only marginally affected by their exam results. By 2030, they will be largely irrelevant. Talent will out, and is not determined by the lag indicator of exams, but by the lead indicators of purpose, vision, character, determination and the support we offer them. People will perform in line with our trust and interest in them.

We are heading into a future none of us can predict, and for which exams based on an arbitrary and industrialised education process are horribly poor indicators. Like GDP, our exam systems measure everything except what’s really important.

We are not components. Lets not treat our students as though they are. They are unique individuals.

I know that’s more difficult to scale and regulate, but I can’t get too excited about an education system for which this is a priority.

Exams are useful indicators, but when it comes to selecting people I want to work with, I want to talk to students, and the teachers who know them, not bureaucrats.