Socialist Alternative

Reject capitalism’s exam factories! A history of exams and the struggle today

The Tories’ planned downgrading of 40% of A-Level results and up to 97% of GCSE results was met with outrage across the country. Protests led by young people against the robbery of their future sprung up in many towns and cities against this unfair declaration of class war, with children denied their grades for the crime of going to a “lower achieving” school.

The pressure put on the Tories by these protests forced them to U-turn, giving pupils their predicted grades as previously planned. This has shown that when we fight back, we can win, and is a powerful signal to the trade union leaderships, particularly the education unions.

This scandal has highlighted the unfairness of the exams and assessment system as a whole. Socialists, trade unionists and radical educators have warned for decades that a high stakes testing regime negatively impacts on children and staff.

History of exams

The emergence of examinations in the UK in the mid- to late 1800s was in the context of big societal changes, where an increasing number of working class people were fighting for an education and against an ‘essentially static society in which social, occupational and personal roles were bound up together and determined very largely by birth’ (Broadfoot, 1979, p. 29). As the capitalist class scrambled for a way to keep control, exams were seen by some as a progressive step towards jobs being awarded on the basis of ability rather than social status; in reality, this did not materialise.

Instead examinations were used as an instrument of social control in state schools and in many workplaces, particularly the Civil Service. Private schools, however, were largely able to resist this and instead continued to focus on the networking skills their pupils needed to remain part of the “elite”.

Even some in Government could see that exams were having a negative impact, and in 1911 the Consultative Committee of the Board of Education recommended that school reports were used instead of examinations. This was also an effort to improve the “conveyor belt” of students becoming workers, as they proposed an increased focus on vocational skills and a closer relationship with employers. Their recommendations were rejected in favour of the School Certificate, for which tests were implemented by universities. It is not a surprise that, as the institutions of the elite, universities were entrusted with managing exams, or that these mechanisms were designed to benefit the elite. The School Certificate also firmly established the centrality of written, standardised tests in so-called “academic” subjects, with subjects like art being relegated to a secondary position.

Prestige of private schools and the 11+

Despite the new tests, the prestige of the school that people attended remained the most crucial factor in their career path; lower attaining pupils from private schools still ended up with better-paying jobs than higher attaining pupils from state schools. The radicalised working class movement during WW2 demanded change, and the 1944 Education Act followed. This was heralded at the time as a progressive move which would improve social mobility, and formed part of the post-war consensus between the major political parties. Its grand proposals of free education for all were welcomed, as was the claim that higher-attaining working class children would be able to attend grammar schools or technical colleges.

This grand plan did not materialise. In fact, the new ‘mechanism of social selection’, the 11+ exam, functioned as a test of little more than parents’ ability to afford specialist tuition. Working class children almost exclusively attended the “less academic” secondary modern schools – technical colleges were few and far between, and even many children who did pass the 11+ were unable to attend a grammar school as there wasn’t one near enough to them. Middle class children were six times more likely to be selected to attend a grammar school than working class children. The primary distinction between grammar schools and secondary moderns was not the work being done, but that middle class pupils attended grammar schools and working class pupils attended secondary moderns.

The 11+ also branded children as failures at a young age, a label that often stuck with them throughout their lives. Chris Horrie (2017) was one of those children, and writes ‘At age 11 it had been scientifically determined that I was stupid … not only dim-witted but officially clueless, with a letter from the government to prove it. That was just the way of it – a stone‑cold, independently verified, rock-hard fact. I went upstairs to my bedroom, drew the curtains and sobbed for days.’

The vile 11+ exams have been scrapped in the majority of the UK, although they remain in place in some areas. Following the phasing out of the 11+ in the late 1970s, areas which did not conduct the exam did not carry out formal standardised testing at the end of Year 6. Children were still informally assessed, and sometimes tests were carried out, but this varied by area. In all cases, the ongoing, formative assessments of teachers played a central role in the transition to secondary school.

Testing from the 1980s onwards

The global education reform movement (GERM) could not stand the absence of standardised testing, however. This movement has been described as ‘an epidemic that spreads and infects education systems’ with increased competition between schools and standardised testing as part of a drive towards the marketisation of the education system. This has certainly impacted education in the UK.

Following the imposition of the National Curriculum in the late 1980s, Standardised Assessment Tests (SATs) were introduced in the three “core” subjects; English, Maths and Science. This had the obvious impact of devaluing the “non-core” subjects, which are now often relegated to a secondary position and taught in the afternoons – when the “important” lessons have been done in the morning.

As Socialist Alternative member and teacher Bob Sulatycki wrote at the time in Militant’s “A Socialist Education Programme”, ‘The testing element of the National Curriculum is its most pernicious feature. Testing of all pupils at 7, 11, 14 and 16 is supplemented by a plethora of mini-tests. Such testing will inevitably be crude and damaging to pupils and schools alike and represents a complete break from all accepted methods of learning in primary schools. Many pupils will now be expected to see their work as “failed” from the age of seven … The overall impact of testing, and the subsequent publication of inter-school league tables of results, wiII rapidly lead to a narrowing of the curriculum as schools and teachers simply teach to the tests.’

This has been borne out, with studies concluding that the UK is among the worst in the developed world for teaching to the test. Even the head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, warned that ‘teaching to the test, rather than teaching the full curriculum, leaves a pupil with a hollowed-out and flimsy understanding’!

Exams today

Exams remain today, as they always have been, a deeply unfair way to assess children’s ability and achievement. The connection between poverty or lower incomes and academic difficulty, particularly in exams, has been established over decades. Working class families are significantly disadvantaged for this reason.

The ‘crude and damaging’ testing system is unfair to schools as well as pupils, as it fails to take into account the significant differences between schools in terms of pupil intake and resources. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; schools where incredible work is being done in challenging areas may achieve more in terms of progress than a school in a more middle-class area,

This unfairness is not an accident, it is an inherent problem of summative assessment; as the Militant pamphlet says, ‘all examination systems exist under capitalism to exclude students, to close down opportunities to mainly working class young people.’

The struggle against testing

The strength of feeling among education workers to oppose SATs and other summative testing is very clear from the repeated industrial action proposed by education unions. At the 2019 National Education Union conference, a motion was passed advocating a boycott of high stakes summative testing in primary schools. The Union correctly said that ‘there can be no lasting solution to problems of children’s well-being, teacher workload, curriculum narrowness and teaching to the test unless our assessment system changes.’ Unfortunately the threatened boycott did not materialise. Unions representing education workers should jointly organise industrial action against schools being turned into exam factories, including a boycott. Boycotts in the past have been aimed at SATs, but could and should also be applied to Reception baseline tests, Year One phonics tests and more. 

Given the situation during the pandemic, which has seen children miss school and now return in very different conditions, it is even more important to resist standardised testing throughout the education system. Socialist Alternative fully supports the #ALevel21Strike of pupils planning to boycott the 2021 A-Levels, and believes this should be extended to GCSEs and SATs, with education workers, parents and carers involved at every level.

Summative assessment through standardised testing is ineffective and plays a counter-productive role in real education. It exists not to assist children’s learning, but to enable the creation of league tables, the enforcement of the ‘standards’ agenda and the ‘production’ of qualified workers. We must reject this, and see it for what it always has been; ‘a strait-jacket which blights rather than enhances the educational attainment of the majority.’

A socialist education system would do away with standardised testing and summative assessment altogether. This does not mean abolishing assessment itself – ongoing formative assessments and diagnostic assessments are key tools in supporting students, and would continue to have a central role. Rather than exams and league tables, a socialist system would focus on real learning, without such a stark differentiation between “core” and “non-core” subjects. Students, education workers and parents have a common interest in fighting capitalism’s exam factories and for an education system which places learning at the centre. 

References/further reading

Broadfoot, P.M. (1979) Assessment, schools and society. London: Methuen & Co.

Broadfoot, P.M. (1984) The rationality of judgement: comparative perspectives on the social role of educational assessment. PhD thesis. Open University. Available at:

Horrie, C. (2017) ‘Grammar schools: back to the bad old days of inequality’ The Guardian, 4th May.

Sulatycki, B. (1992) A socialist education programme. London: Militant.

Solidarity with school strike in Japan

Education workers in Japan’s “eikaiwa schools”, employed by NOVA, are currently on strike against unsafe working conditions due to the coronavirus pandemic. Eikaiwa schools teach English as a foreign language to Japanese nationals, both adults and young people.

The majority of workers in eikaiwa schools are foreign nationals who have emigrated to Japan, and they are represented by the General Union (GU).

The strikes have impacted schools throughout Japan, including in Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto and Asahikawa. Slogans include “Safe working environment now!” and “This strike is about safety”. One striking worker wrote on Facebook “I have already put in my papers to resign from Nova and return to my home county next month, but I am striking in solidarity with my friends and colleagues for their rights. I’m not striking for my own benefits. I’m striking for everyone else’s rights.”

NOVA workers already had to fight to ensure schools were closed at the height of the pandemic, after the GU accused the company of fining workers who did not wish to work in dangerous conditions. When the company did allow working from home, they and other eikaiwa chains were accused of demanding “sabisu zangyo” – complimentary overtime – from their employees. Some employees said they were expected to work for over 10 hours a day at home.

This is not the first strike to take place in Japan’s eikaiwa schools. In 2007 over 500 workers at NOVA schools took strike action, and from December 2007-November 2008 workers at Berlitz schools took part in “the longest and largest sustained strike by language teachers in Japan”. These heroic strikers were sued by their employer following the action, in a legal dispute which was not settled until 2012. These actions come in the context of the consistent erosion of wages and living standards for workers in eikaiwa schools, from around ¥400,000 (£3000) a month in the 1980s to ¥250,000 (£1800) today.

A statement on July 23rd indicates that the next round of strikes is currently suspended as NOVA has committed to negotiations with the GU. Industrial action should not be ruled out if the company refuses to meet the unions demands.

Industrial action to defend workers in education and in other industries during the pandemic will be necessary as big business and governments sacrifice people for the sake of profit.

International Socialist Alternative members throughout the world, particularly those working in education, stand in solidarity with workers striking for safety!

Tories drop GRA reform: build the fight for trans rights

The Tories’ recent attacks on trans rights are a return to form for the ‘Nasty Party’. Their proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act, which were limited but would have made it easier for trans people to legally change their gender, have been scrapped – and there’s more to come.

The Times reported on leaked Tory plans to criminalise doctors who treat trans children, and to enforce a US-style ‘bathroom bill’ requiring people to use male or female toilets and changing rooms based on their assigned sex at birth. This would be a huge step back for trans rights, and would put trans people in immediate danger.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Boris Johnson and the Tories want to attack women and LGBTQ+ people. Johnson has a record spanning decades of vile misogynistic and queerphobic remarks. As for the Tories, they’re rotten to the core: the homophobic party of Section 28, which banned schools from talking about LGBTQ+ people. In 2013 the majority of their MPs voted against equal marriage. This is ‘business as usual’!

The rhetoric around the GRA and around trans people in general is increasingly reminiscent of the language that was once commonly used about gay people; the idea that we are a danger to children, or are predators, or want to ‘convert’ children to being trans. J.K. Rowling has spread these claims, and argued that treating trans children is akin to ‘conversion therapy’ for gay people but her arguments are untrue. Trans children are not rushed into receiving hormone therapies or puberty blockers, far from it – the NHS has huge waiting lists for children or adults wishing to receive support with their gender identity.

There is an issue to do with conversion therapy, but it is not the one to which Rowling refers. Until recently, Dr Kenneth Zucker was a doctor within Ontario’s public health system, despite criticism of his therapeutic interventions on trans children, which have been widely described as conversion therapy. This included instructing parents to take a trans girl’s dolls away, stop her from playing with girls and punish her for drawing pictures of girls. Zucker has been described as ‘very litigious’, which is a useful way to silence his opposition and limit what can be said here. Despite the controversy around his therapies, he remains active in the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, he regularly speaks at important events and he continues to edit the journal Archives of Sexual Behaviour. Those who are truly concerned about how children are treated should look at the reality for trans children, waiting lists, gatekeeping doctors, potential lack of facilities in school, and of course seeing adults attack their right to exist when they turn on the news.

The Tories and their transphobic allies claim that trans people, particularly trans women, are a threat to women’s safety. Not only is there no evidence for this claim, it is a distraction from the real threat to women’s safety – austerity. A decade of drastic cuts and vicious austerity measures has seen women’s services cut to the bone, with funding for refuges for victims of domestic violence reduced by £8 million. According to Women’s Aid, as a result of these cuts ‘domestic abuse services have been lurching from funding crisis to funding crisis, with many refuges closing, changing hands, reducing refuge spaces or … the level of support they can provide’.

Trans people didn’t cut women’s services: the Tories did! Those who blame trans people for services being stretched are using the same tactics as are used by racist groups and Tory politicians: don’t blame the rich, don’t blame the bosses, don’t blame the Tories – blame immigrants, blame BAME people, blame trans people. Rather than attacking trans people for wanting to use services for their true gender rather than their assigned sex, those in the labour movement who are genuinely concerned about women’s lives should turn their fire on the Tory government, and the Labour councils who have implemented their austerity measures.

The now-scrapped GRA reforms were a potential step forward, but they did not go far enough. Gender self-identification should be available to all, the legal ‘gatekeeping’ of trans people’s gender identities must end! Legal recognition of gender should not require any medical transition.

Support for trans people, including but not limited to hormone replacement therapy (HRT), surgery, counselling, vocal therapies and hair removal should be available for free on the NHS, without the lengthy delays people currently face when seeking to access support. The trade union movement must link with the movement demanding trans rights and mobilise for protests across the country, organising in workplaces and the community to demand improved facilities and services for all, including LGBTQ+ services and women’s services. The demonstrations across the UK have shown that people can be mobilised in defence of trans people.

We need to build a movement for trans liberation around the world – that means fighting for the end of homophobic, oppressive capitalism and for a socialist world.