Sociological Perspectives on the 2020 Exam results fiasco

What a mess this years exam results were!

First of all students get awarded their results based primarily on an algorithm, which adjusted center predicted grades up or down depending on how their historical results records.

Then those results were scrapped in favour of the original teacher predicted grades, awarded several months ago, unless the algorithm grade was better!

And finally, amidst all that chaos, BTEC students just get forgotten about with the publication of their results being delayed.

Unfortunately there isn’t a ‘total balls up’ perspective in Sociology, as that would most definitely be the best fit to explain what occurred, and I’m not sure that any one perspective can really explain what’s going on, but there some concepts we can apply….

Marxism

A basic tenet of Marxism applied to education is that the education system tends to benefit the middle classes more than the working classes, and especially the 7% of privately schooled kids compared to other 93% who are educated in state school.s

The algorithm which was used to adjust teacher predicted grades benefitted those from higher class backgrounds more than from lower class backgrounds.

You’ll need to follow the Twitter threads below for the evidence…

The Power of Popular Protest

However, students protested…..

And as we all know, the algorithm was overturned, and we ended up with teacher predicted grades being the basis for results (unless the algorithm gave students a better result of course!).

So in this case the system did try to to screw the working classes, but popular protest managed a small victory.

NB – it’s worth pointing out that Independently schooled kids probably still have better results on average than working class kids, so while this may feel like a victory, it’s maybe no big deal really?

Labelling Theory

I think there’s an interesting application here in relation to teacher predicted grades – clearly teachers have exaggerated these as much as they can, because the results on average are nearly a grade up compared to last year – which is a great example of teachers positively labelling their students in terms of giving them the highest grades they might have achieved.

It kind of shows you that, at the end of the day, teachers are more positive about their students than negative.

For one year only, we’ve got results based on labels, the projections in teachers’ heads rather than being based on objectively measured performance. In some cases over the next year we are going to see the limitations of labelling theory – just because a teacher says someone is capable of getting 5 good GCSEs doesn’t mean they are going to be able to cope with A levels rather than BTECs at college.

Keep in mind that some of the teacher predicted rates are going to be utter fantasy, and not every case is going to end up in a self-fulfilling prophecy – there are going to be a lot of failures at A-level as thousands of over-predicted students can’t cope.

Probably less so at universities – they need the money from tuition fees, so they’ll probably just lower their standards for this cohort.

Functionalism

You may think that this has no relevance, HOWEVER, the system hasn’t collapsed, has it?

There was a bit of a blip, a few people got upset and protested, and now this year’s students have ended up with much better results than last year’s students based on teacher predicted grades which are clearly about as exaggerated as they can get away with.

And now we’re all heading back to college and university and things are going to go back to the ‘new normal’, without anything very much changing, despite the fact that so many flaws have been revealed in how the exam system works.

I’d say this whole fiasco has been a pretty good example of a system coping well with a crisis and coming out the other side relatively unscathed.

Postmodernism and Late Modernism

The extent to which these apply is a bit of a mixed bag….

The government certainly showed a high degree of uncertainty about how to award results, resulting in wide spread chaos, which certainly seems to fit in which the postmodern perspective.

However, that’s about as far as it goes I think…. students and parents alike showed an utter contempt for being ruled by an algorithim, which is one of the primary mechanisms of social control in post/ late modern societies (via actuaralism) – and yet when its workings are brought to light, people resisted – they wanted justice and meritocracy rather than this bizarre way of managing selves.

Also the fact that people actually seem to care about their results and want a sense of justice isn’t really postmodern – it’s a very modernist concern, to be interested in one’s education and future career, and I get the feeling that rather than kicking back and enjoying their postmodern leisure time, students have just been generally worried about their results and their future.

So there’s been a high level of uncertainty and fear/ worry, that’s quite postmodern, but the fact that people actually care about education, that’s more modernist….

‘Results’ Day

Students like to think that their exam results are primarily down their own individual effort and ability (their ‘merit’ if you like), and these are two of the factors which influence their exam results.

However, the results statistics clearly show us that social factors such as parental income, wider social class background, gender and ethnicity clearly impact the results.

To put it in stark terms: being born to middle class Indian parents gives you a much better chance of getting 3 A grades at A-level compared to being born to white working-class parents.

Granted, that within your ‘cultural’ grouping, individual factors such as raw intelligence and ability are going to effect results, in some cases that ability and effort will be so outstanding that some white working class kids will do better than some middle class Indian kids, but on average, social factors effect the results too.

Thus, you could say that we end up skewed, unfair results every year, because the exam results are at least partially measuring class, gender and ethnic background.

The school that pupils attend also has an ‘effect’, on average, with some schools getting persistently good results, mainly the independent schools, a few schools seemingly doomed to failure, and most schools chugging along somewhere in the middle.

However, that said, at least when individual students sit exams, they are assessed by the same standards, and ranked against each other according to those same standards, and they can move up and down from their ‘class/ gender/ ethnicity’ base-average  depending on their individual effort and ability, or lack of either, so in that sense, exams are fair.

What usually happens once all the exams have been marked, according to the same standards, is that the chief examiners look at the spread of results, and then decide what raw mark translates to a pass grade (an E grade), and what amount of raw marks counts for an A* grade.

Generally speaking, the 2 boundaries – U/E and upper A* yield similar percentages each year – in Sociology it’s around a 98% pass rate and a 5% A* rate (NB that is from memory so excuse any inaccuracy), and then within that students receive A-E grades relative to other people, with everyone having sat the same exam.

The 2020 Results Fiasco

This ‘standardisation’ of students sitting the same exam and then those exams being marked according to the same standards didn’t happen this year because students have not sat exams.

Instead, exam results were based on teacher predicted grades , and then modified according to a black-box algorithm, which, as I understand it, took account of factors such as the track-record of the school.

The problem with results being based on teacher predictions

On the face of it, teachers are the ones best place to decide what grades their students would have got, had they sat the exams: they know their students, they have evidence from at least a year’s worth of work.

The problem is that teachers don’t use the same standards to mark work – some are harsh, some are soft, having different theories about the best way to motivate students, so if mark-book grades are to be used as evidence, students are not being assessed in the same way.

A second problem is that teachers will inflate the predicted grades, at least most of them will – it’s a competitive system, so of course you’re going to game the results up as far as you can without the grades looking like a complete fantasy.

Different teachers and schools will have different comfort levels about how far to push these grades. Some would have actually been professional and given accurate grades, so that’s another reason why teacher and institution grades aren’t a great way of awarding results.

However, the strength of this system is that even if teachers have exaggerated results, they should have exaggerated them in line with their perceived effort and ability of their pupils, so at least it takes into account these individual level factors.

Enter the algorithm

Hence why the exams authority moderated the results – they know there is bias between institutions. And at the end of the day, we’ve ended up with overall results which are slightly better than previous years, which seams, on average, a fair way to do it.

By the logic of an algorithm which works on averages, that is fair – for this year’s students, on average, to come out with slightly better results.

Assuming the algorithm has tweaked all the students results in one institution across all subjects to the same degree, we should have fair individual level results too.

The problem

In a nutshell, it’s cases like these….

As I understand it the problem is that some schools especially have been penalised more than others, especially rapidly improving schools, and any school where the teachers have been stupid enough to be honest about predicted grades, their pupils would have lost out massively too.

I’m not sure how representative these case studies are, TBH I think they’re in a minority, but honestly, it’s not great for those students involved!

Winners and losers from the cancellation of A-level exams

The evidence suggests that if you’re white and middle class you’ll do OK out of A-levels being cancelled, not so if you’re BAME or poor.

The Coronavirus may not discriminate, but the social response to it probably will, and this could well be the case with the recent decision by the DFE to cancel A-level exams.

Universities will now rely on a combination of GCSE results and predicted grades from schools and colleges in order to determine which students qualify for which degree courses, and this will benefit some more than others.

The winners

If you’ve been working hard all year and had a decent mock exam grade (which would have been sat very recently in most centers) then you’re predicted grade should at least match the grade you would have got.

If you suffer from exam stress, dyslexia or any other ‘condition’ that may mean you under perform in exams compared to your ability, then your predicted grade may even be higher than what you would have got.

If you’ve got an unconditional offer from a university for the course you want, and you’re happy enough with your predicted grades then you’ve just been gifted two free months of your life, although you may not be able to do what you want with those two months, like going outside for example!

In general I’d say that the next two months of A-level teaching are actually the most pointless thing in terms of useful skills and knowledge – you would have literally spent two months cramming knowledge into your head and learning exam technique, both skills being utterly useless in any real life content, work or otherwise.

You’ve been spared that, however….

The losers

This article in The Guardian suggests that predicted grades tend to be lower for black and minority ethnic students and for those from poorer backgrounds, compared to those students from white middle class backgrounds.

The argument is that teacher stereotypes, or labelling if you like, mean that BAME student’s grades are under-predicted, and so these students tend to do better than expected in exams, an opportunity now lost to them. (Yes they may get a chance to sit some kind of exam in the Autumn, but that might be too late).

The article further suggests that those who are privately educated are more likely to have an unconditional offer and that those with ‘pushy parents’ are more likely to negotiate their children higher predicted grades from the schools, drawing on cultural capital theory.

And I do feel for home educated or self-studying students, who probably have no record of past achievement and no mock exams to fall back on, especially if they messed up their GCSEs and are returning to A-levels maybe after taking a year or a few months out.

Conclusions

The DFE, exam boards and UCAS are all aware of how a university entrance system based on predicted grades discriminates against certain students, I just hope they put measures in place to combat this.

We won’t know how effective any anti-discriminatory measures have been until we can compare the ‘results’ and UCAS entrance stats for this year with last year, assuming that data will even be published?

A-Level Sociology is Becoming Increasingly Popular!

There’s been a 16% increase in A-Level Sociology Exam Entries between the 4 years 2014-2018, according to the latest data on GCSE, AS and A-level entries from Ofqual.

A level entries 2014 to 2018

Here’s a print version of the stats in case the above isn’t that legible! (If it’s not, I might try and sort it out laters!).

how many students study A-level sociology

 

What’s particularly encouraging about this is that this in the context of declining numbers of 17-18 year olds in the corresponding birth years stretching from 1996-2000, and the corresponding decrease in overall A-level entries.

It’s also interesting to note that more traditional subjects such as History and English are losing out to ‘newer’ more critical subjects such as Sociology. Psychology also saw a similar trend.

Just a quick one today!

 

Analyse two reasons why men might commit more crime than women (10)

This is a possible ’10 mark with item question’ question which might come up on the AQA’s A level sociology crime and deviance with theory and methods paper (7192/3).

I’ve just got this intuitive feeling that IF a 10 mark question comes up on gender, it will ask candidates to focus on masculinity and male crime rather than female crime.

Below I include a question, with item and a suggested model answer…

10 Mark ‘with item’ Question

Read Item A, then answer the question below.

Item A

‘Normative masculinity’ is the socially approved ideal of what a ‘real man’ is. This involves being successful in terms of money and sexual conquests, being in control/exercising power. Messerschmitt argues that high levels of male crime are simply down to men trying to prove they are ‘real men’.

This goes some way to explaining white collar crime (mainly male) – it’s about status and competition. It might also also explain domestic violence and working class street violence – these are the means men with low status use to act out their masculinity when they lack power in mainstream society.

Using material from Item A, analyse two reasons why men might commit more crime than women (10)

Hints and Tips

  • Being successful: money, sex, in control, excercising power
  • normative (traditional) masculinity
  • Elite (white collar) crime
  • Low status crimes (WC street violence)
  • Also DV!

Suggested Model Answer

Firstly

  • Men might commit more crime than women because they believe that they need to be financially successful to prove they are a ‘real man’. The most obvious way a man can ‘act out’ this ‘traditional breadwinner’ aspect of his masculinity is to get a well-paid job.
  • However, according to Merton’s Strain Theory, not all men can achieve this goal through the legitimate means of getting a high paid job, as there are relatively few of these available, and as a result some will turn to crime in order ‘show they are successful’.
  • For some men this may ‘simply’ mean earning money by criminal means – by dealing drugs or doing ‘moped thefts’ for example – all of which seem to be mainly male pursuits.
  • Other men who lack the opportunity or ‘smartness’ to do utilitarian crime may just get frustrated and seek to prove their status and toughness through violence, as Winlow found with mainly working class men in Newcastle.
  • However, it isn’t just working class men who turn to crime to prove status: within companies some highly paid men turn to fraud to make even more money than their male peers.

Secondly…

  • Men might commit more crime than women to ‘prove they are in control of women’.
  • From a radical feminist perspective this is largely what explains domestic violence which happens across all class groups.
  • Heidensohn suggests DV is just one criminal way men express control in in private – it also happens in public through ‘harrassment’ on the streets
  • This is further perpetuated by ‘the male gaze’ and the objectification of women in the media, especially porn, all of which are interwoven in a network of patriarchal control over women.
  • However, men don’t necessarily just use sexual violence to control women, they also use it to control other men – male rape has been used against captured combatants in the DRC for example, and it can also be used in prisons where ‘situational homosexuality’ can be used as a means some men use to express their power over others.

 

 

The most popular A Levels of 2017

Maths wins, with 88, 000 entries, followed by English (74, 000 entries) and just to prove we truly live in an uncritical, individualised society, Psychology comes in at 3rd with 57,000 entries.

Here’s a tree map I knocked up showing this – the interactive version is at this link

A level statistics 2017

Click here for another interactive version which allows you to compare entries from between 2014 to 2017….

A quick note on some of the categories…

Basically feel free to harangue me if you don’t think PE is a social science – I just didn’t want to call it a science, and neither does it really fit anywhere else.

I also may have cut out a few of the more minor A-levels, so this isn’t exhaustive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why boys aren’t really catching up girls at A-level

The 2017 A level results revealed that boys beat girls to top grades,  with 26.6% of boys achieving the top grades A-A* compared to 26.1% of girls. This is the first time in years that boys have done better than girls at A level, and suggests that they may be starting to close the ‘gender gap‘ in education.

exam results gender 2017.png

However, such general analysis may actually be misleading, at least according to some recent analysis carried out by statisticians on behalf of Radio Four’s More or Less.

 

Firstly, girls are outperforming boys at all other levels (all other grades) at A Level.

Secondly, a lot more girls do A levels than boys, and it’s problematic to talk about how well boys are doing without taking into account the seemingly higher proportion of boys who have been judged, by virtue of their GCSE results, not to be competent to do ‘A’ levels in the first place.

Finally, if you analyse the results on a subject by subject basis, you basically find that the above data is skewed by the A level maths results.

Maths is the subject with the highest proportion of A-A* grades of all subjects, with nearly 18% of 18% of grades being A or A*, and 60% of exam entries are by boys. Contrast this to English Literature, where 75% of entrants are girls, and only 9% get an A*, and you can pretty much explain the .5% in different in high grades by these two subjects alone.

Overall, girls got more As and A*s in 26 of the 39 A level subjects.

Maybe pulling all of these 39 subjects together and just presenting the overall percentages is not helpful?

 

 

 

Do bad exam results matter?

Results day tomorrow, and I predict that Social Media will be full of comments by celebrities telling students that exam results don’t matter that much because ‘I failed my exams, but I still found success’.

This happened last year during The Guardian’s live chat following the release of  the 2016 GCSE results. The chat even supplied a link to a list of ‘famous school flops‘, which include the big three examples of ‘success despite educational failure’ – Alan Sugar, Richard Branson and Simon Cowell, but I can’t really see the relevance of these examples to today’s youth – all they demonstrate is that white men born before 1960 had a chance of being successful if they failed their exams, hardly representative.

There are a few comments from younger celebrities who claim that getting bad exam results are not the end of the world, because despite bad exam results, they have managed to build successful careers. 

From radio presenter Darryl Morris (no, I’d never heard of him either, although I do recognise him):

Daryll Morris.jpg
Darryl Morris – with 10 year’s of hobby-experience, a cheeky-chappy personality and a lot of luck, you too can be successful, even if you failed your exams!

I missed out on my desired GCSE results because I spent most of my revision time practising at the school radio station. I have no English qualifications and dropped out of a college that reluctantly accepted me to pursue a radio career – now I am a presenter and writer….You don’t need anybody’s permission to be successful – it comes from your passion, commitment and ambition.

From Ben Fogle, presenter of every outdoor program the BBC has made this century:

‘Exams left me feeling worthless and lacking in confidence. The worse I did in each test, the more pressure I felt to deliver results that never came. When I failed half my A-levels, and was rejected by my university choices, I spiralled into a depression.

The wilderness rescued me. I have been shaped by my experiences in the great outdoors. Feeling comfortable in the wild gave me the confidence to be who I am, not who others want me to be… it strengthened my character and set me back on track.’

Ben Fogle.jpg
Ben Fogle – If you’re independently schooled, screamingly middle class and very lucky, then you could also network your way into a TV presenting career, even if you fail your exams

Finally, Jeremy Clarkson tweeted: “If your A-level results are disappointing, don’t worry. I got a C and two Us, and I’m currently on a superyacht in the Med.”

The problem with the above is that every single one of the above examples may well be talented and passionate about what they do, as well as hard-working, but IN ADDITION, they either exploited what you might call ‘alternative opportunity structures’, they networked their way to success, or they were just plain lucky, in the sense of being in the right place at the right time: 

Morris was presenting radio from a very young age, so already had lots of experience by the time he was snapped up by the BBC at 16 – so this guy’s ‘alternative opportunity structure’ was through school and local community radio – a very niche way to success.

TBH I don’t know whether Clarkson networked himself onto Top Gear – but he went to the same fee-paying private school (Repton School) as the executive producer of the program, so even if the old-school tie wasn’t part of it, he would’ve oozed cultural and social capital because of his class background.

As for Fogle not only was he independently schooled (so culturally well prepared for his future at the BBC which is chock-full of the privately schooled), -he was also lucky enough to have been at the right age/ fitted the profile for the BBC’s Castaway 2000 series, which catapulted him into fame, he’s also quite charming, which no doubt helps!

So all these case studies show us is that if you want to be successful, then exam results don’t matter IF you have alternative opportunity structures to exploit, AND/ OR you have sufficient social and cultural capital to be able to be able network your way into a job. 

This important qualification (excuse the pun) to the ‘exam results don’t matter argument’ is backed up by Frances Ryan who points out that such comments tend to come from upper middle class adults, for whom as teenagers, poor exam results mattered less because their parents’ wealth and their higher levels cultural and social capital opened up other opportunities for them.

However, Ryan argues that for teenagers from poorer backgrounds, getting good exam results may well be the only realistic opportunity  they have of getting into university and getting a graduate job, which, on average, will still pay you more over the course of a life time than a non-graduate job.

A classic way in which this inequality of opportunity manifests itself is that wealthy parents are able to support their 19-20 year old teenagers to either do another year of A levels, or an access course, or an unpaid internships for a few months or a year to give them a second chance, poorer kids don’t have these options, not unless they want to go into crippling levels of debt.

So – do bad exam results matter? Judging by the analysis above, it matters more if you’re from a working class background because education and qualifications provide the most likely path way to social mobility…..but less so from an upper middle class background.

Having said all of that, if you’ve woken up to the idea that a normal life is basically just a bit shit, then exam results don’t really matter at all. Trust me, jobs aren’t all that! Why not try one of the following alternatives instead:

  • Do voluntary work
  • Become an eco-anarchist
  • Become an artist
  • Go travelling
  • Go homeless
  • Become a monk
  • Live with your parents for the rest of your life.
  • Learn to live without money.

For more ideas about alternative career paths, you might like this post: alternative careers: or how to avoid working for a living.