With marginalised students even less likely to achieve top grades during the pandemic, it’s about time we addressed systemic inequality within our education system, writes NUS president, Larissa Kennedy.

With marginalised students even less likely to achieve top grades during the pandemic, it’s about time we addressed the systemic inequality which plagues the UK’s education, writes NUS National president, Larissa Kennedy.

Many students were breathing a sigh of relief after this year’s results day proved to be far less turbulent than the last. In 2020, we came together on the streets to protest the classist, racist, ableist algorithm which saw the downgrading of students, and we won a U-turn from the government. This year, results based on teacher assessments saw far more students getting their rightful grades – however, the inequalities which plague our education system remain firmly in place. 

While students were feeling relieved, certain Tory MPs and commentators tried to sour this moment by complaining about ‘grade inflation’. But the core problem here is an education system that all too often sets marginalised students up to fail.

Year on year, cohort after cohort, we are faced with an education system that reproduces the same trends of systemic injustice, but one which is labelled by the government as ‘fair’. 70 per cent of students at private schools achieved A* of As this year, almost double the 39 per cent of comprehensive school pupils who received the same top marks. This forms part of a worrying trend which has seen this gap widen by seven per cent since 2019. A system where you can buy higher grades, and off the back of that entrance into ‘elite’ universities, cannot be considered meritocratic.

Black and brown students, disabled students and working-class students have become even less likely to achieve top grades during the pandemic. These problems weren’t created by Covid-19, but they’ve been brought into sharp relief – and we can’t redress these fundamental problems by replacing A-E grades with numbers

We can’t simply tinker at the edges of this system, nor can we afford to ‘go back to normal’; we must use the lessons learned from this, and last, Results Day, to re-envision education. In the short-term, this has to include things such as more funding and more resources – from fully-funded, fully-functioning digital infrastructure, which would ensure marginalised students have the same access. 

But more broadly, our examination – and wider education – system needs fundamental transformation. At the National Union for Students (NUS), we are building a movement to radically transform education, and we will not stop until we see the student movement’s vision of a system which is properly funded, free, accessible and lifelong, and which does not go back to solely relying on examination as a means of assessment.  

Education should also be entrenched in, and serve, our communities. It must break down the divides between towns and education institutions, so that everyone can feel pride and ownership – not alienation. And these issues are underpinned by student funding, so introducing a more sustainable and fairer funding formula is absolutely vital. Halting the marketisation of further and higher education and ensuring that students receive a living income all year round would create equity of opportunity and provide more young people with the opportunity to learn. 

The past two years of disruption have shown the only way forward for students is radical reform across the board. Live on Sky News last week, I challenged the Secretary of State for Education on and offered to meet with him to discuss a way forward, but he’s shied away from accountability from students. Over the next year, our collective voices will be too loud to ignore as we seek the education system we all deserve.

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