Extra Time Benefits the Better-off: it's Time We Recognise That
Exams are horrible, teeth-grinding ordeals. Counting down the hours until crunch time, we pore over complex formulas and obscure quotes. In the end, we’re predictably ambushed by the one topic we neglected to revise. Given the inherent nastiness of testing, there’s an admirable justification for extra time. Why shouldn’t students with learning difficulties receive support to make exams less harrowing? After all, extra time merely levels the playing field, guaranteeing everyone is equally-armed in the gruelling battle of academic excellence. That’s a nice idea — but utterly wrong-headed. In fact, presenting extra time as egalitarian is a distortion of almost Orwellian proportions. Rather than advancing equality, it entrenches privilege.
Alongside the buffet of benefits afforded by their education, private school students are far more likely to receive extra time than their state school counterparts. Last year’s figures show that 35.8 per cent of private school students received extra time — the figure at state schools is a measly 22.7 per cent. Whilst this undoubtedly contributes to the overperformance of private schools, these adjustments also have knock-on effects. Privately-educated students continue to enjoy extra time at university and in exams taken as part of job applications. In my view, this is nothing more than institutionalised cheating. Relentless in their pursuit of flawless exam results, private schools construe the slightest cognitive weakness into grounds for long-lasting preferential treatment for their students. Certainly, the proliferation of private school pupils suffering from ‘slow processing’ has enabled some very mediocre minds to ascend far beyond the bounds of their natural abilities.
In state schools, things aren’t much better. The middle classes hog all the support and, if they get diagnosed at all, working-class students are usually pigeonholed as having behavioural issues. Whilst there’s obviously a degree of old-fashioned prejudice at work here, the calamitous impacts of helicopter parenting should not be understated. Many affluent parents are obsessed with the academic performance of their offspring. When their little angel isn’t blossoming into the next Da Vinci, they swoop in, demanding explanations. The outrageous suggestion — that the child is simply not that bright — doesn’t wash. After all, what’s the point of all these educational experts if not to indulge the delusions of bourgeois parents?
As the Campaign for Real Education (CRE) has argued, the basis for diagnosing learning difficulties has become utterly unmoored from science. Take dyslexia. Though it was initially assessed through rigorous tests comparing reading ability and intellect, the grounds for receiving a diagnosis have become increasingly muddled. As education has modernised, it has progressed past the need for trivialities like good practice, and caved to the demands of pushy parents. Aided by the proliferation of private clinics, a learning difficulty — and all the extra time it affords — can be purchased on the free market.
Even if we restructured the education system to dissolve these massive biases, I would continue to advocate for a moderate approach to extra-time provisions. After all, what are exams for if not to test our natural abilities? Though some adjustments will always be needed, we should beware of the slippery slope. There’s a convincing argument that increasing exam time for dyscalculics necessitates time deductions for those with superhuman maths abilities. Indeed, though they are observably real, we have yet to identify a neurological basis for most learning difficulties. Rather than forcing a bizarre equality of outcome — where revision becomes the only factor exams can measure — we should accept that we’ll never create a system that erases all natural biases. Granted, it’s not that nice: but at least it's fair.
Certainly this move would be complemented if we stopped pretending everyone thrives in either consulting or banking. We need to overcome the ridiculous stigmatisation of BTECs and restore the prestige of vocational careers. This would drastically reduce the intense pressure currently placed on academic performance, dampening some of the current extra-time madness.
As it stands, the system for allocating extra time isn’t fit for purpose. In seeking to remedy unfairness, it has just ended up reinforcing class divisions. We’re not going to shift the dwindling rates of social mobility if we keep giving the middle classes special treatment. It's time to call time on extra time.
Photo by: Wikimedia Commons