Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

As schools closed to delay the spread of coronavirus, students, teachers, and politicians have been left “scared and anxious”. Beyond education, schools are vital spaces of stability and socialisation. But their principal panic concerns testing – how can students’ hard work, intelligence, or ‘success’ be measured without exams?

Speaking to the BBC, eleven-year-old Laila lamented not being able to sit her SATs. She wanted to be recognized as no longer ‘an underachiever’, but ‘on target’. Eighteen-year-old Caitlin worried about facing ‘empty’ time, after two years of textbooks and twelve-hour library days. Some students even asked to defer their exams to next summer. These anxieties expose the troubling obsession with exams and targets, which pervades our education system from an early age.

According to Gavin Williamson, cancelling exams is something ‘no education secretary would ever want to do’. But why are we so dependent on exams as a measure of ‘success’? Britain’s education results – and its students’ wellbeing – lag behind its less target-oriented European counterparts. Lord Gus O’Donnell argues that endless academic testing worsens stress and failure amongst young people. He advocates wellbeing as an alternative measure, to produce healthier, happier children ‘better able to make a positive economic and social contribution’.

O’Donnell’s prioritisation of students’ potential economic contribution is telling. As chief civil servant to Blair, Brown and Cameron, he worked throughout the initial periods of the ongoing commodification of schools and universities. The National Curriculum (1988), league tables, and Ofsted inspections (1992) were first justified to improve equality and standards – but also school accountability and parental choice. New Labour ramped up monitoring with Ofsted’s new business model.

Beyond the move to numeric grading, former Education Secretary (2010-2014) Michael Gove’s reforms sapped syllabuses, shunting students through an ever-expanding tick list of topics. Both teachers and students face pressure to perform. Roughly half of teachers’ time is now spent outside the classroom, predominantly preparing for inspections. No longer an academic pursuit of discovery, education is now a numerically quantifiable asset.

By contrast, the panic policies of the coronavirus era are more encouraging. With oversight from exam boards, teachers in England and Scotland will grade their own students based on existing evidence. Teething problems are inevitable. Students have been conditioned to work for final exams. They may not have taken mocks and assignments – if set or taken at all – so seriously.

Nevertheless, teachers are the best qualified to assess their students’ success. A single exam tests a student’s memory and ability to perform on the day. More holistically, teachers can consider students’ continued participation and engagement in learning. Adopting more subtle, frequent in-class assessments will enable teachers to monitor progress throughout the year.

‘Free’ from strict timetables and syllabuses, the coronavirus cancellations could also pluralise learning. Alternative, home-based resources are empowering young people to learn what and how they want. National Theatre screenings, live PE lessons, and storytelling sessions are amongst the free resources available online. Schools and universities are rapidly adapting some courses for digital delivery; a student I spoke to remarked that he’s used more of his university’s resources in the last three weeks than in his previous three years of study.  Our reaction to the pandemic exposes underlying problems in our education system. Beyond fear, we should embrace these unique opportunities to encourage students to learn for life, not points.