As schools go back in Scotland and exam results are issued in England many are questioning “what is education really for?” For all the talk of “equity” “empowerment” and “excellence”, those words sound hollow rhetoric against the harsh reality of education policy-makers’ decisions leading to statistics driving results. Callous mindsets still prevail as it becomes evident that structural and systemic biases were deeply rooted as the guiding roadmap for decision making within SQA and Ofqual. Let us remind ourselves that the height of injustice and inequity is the use of historical outcomes to curtail the opportunities of individuals.

The SQA’s and Ofqual’s decisions highlighted at worst a bigoted mantra “keep them in their place” mindset of officials balancing the books and at best a blatant disrespect for the ability for individuals in challenging circumstances to excel beyond historical norms. Moreover, perhaps the worst education crisis to hit the nation highlighted the lack of trust in the dedicated teachers and school leaders who tirelessly support and encourage children and young people to excel beyond postcode boundaries.

The enduring impact the callous decisions made in the shadows by those in high places about excepting teacher-based “exam results” for pupils across Scotland and England will be deep and discouraging for the individuals, their families and communities. The late notification of the processes by which outcomes were arrived at added to questions about transparency. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes (Who will guard the guards themselves?) is an important question for government sponsored departments.

Moreover, the decisions continued relentless and systematic attacks on teachers and the teaching profession by further undermining the one profession that gives hope to the masses and espouses the belief that through hard work and commitment you can reach your full potential.

Government officials and policy makers need to fully embrace the knowledge that educational attainment is the route to prosperity, wellbeing and sustainable community development and not stand in the way of individuals achieving beyond historical datasets. That has been made even more ironic this year in the fact that national organisations themself “did not achieve” this year.

North and south of the Border examinations bodies are set the task of providing and regulating examinations and then issuing certification. They scored 1/3. In the other two areas they have abdicated responsibility to teachers and then have snatched back authority. Empowerment was short lived, if ever at all. At a time when teaching suffers from a serious recruitment and retention issue, this does nothing to aide moral and retention nor inspire others to join this once respected profession. Let us not forget that the profession of teaching makes all other professions possible. However, instead of celebrating the dedicated teaching professionals who commit themselves to the success of others, the decisions highlight how little regard government decision-makers have for teachers, the teaching profession and the individual students in historically challenged settings.

Those charged with governing the system initially blamed teacher overestimates as the root cause of this year’s debacle. When faced with increasing discontent from the profession, parents and partners it seems politicians may change their tack. This calls into question what is driving education reform? Politics or evidence-based improvements. For some time now there have been calls to “de-politicise” public services. This is a pressing consideration, and indeed the ultimate empowerment, allowing decision making closer to localities guided by professional expertise, as opposed to political pressures. Whilst changes may be made in Scotland this week, in many ways the damage has been done with inequitable systems exposed and teacher judgements called into question. Bringing resolution to this seems like a tightening Gordian Knot. Some students have inflated grades as a result of the algorithms. The whole episode exposes the value base on which individuals perceive education and what the education system tolerates. If there are issues with moderation, it seems that the instructions, evidence and expectations may not have been clear enough. One might now start to ask similar questions about the whole examinations system: is it clear enough, evidence based and with expectations widely known by those in the education community, most of all our students. Moreover, is the model fit for purpose.

Across education we have seen health and wellbeing propelled as the number one concern over academic ability. When we emerge from this crisis many will seek balance for the multiple, and often competing purposes of education: knowledge and academics, skills and employability, self- confidence and mental health, and ability to work in groups locally and as a global community. “The Great Education Crisis of 2020” has shed light on assessment and examinations models that are in need of reform It has questioned the purpose of education and brought into doubt government mantras of excellence, equality and empowerment. In 2020 kids would have shown up. They were not given the chance.

Neil McLennan is Education Senior Lecturer and Leadership Programme Director at University of Aberdeen and Robert White is Unesco’s Teacher Task Force thematic group on Inclusion and Equity co-ordinator, previously Education Reader (University of Aberdeen) now Assoc. Professor of Educational Leadership Le Moyne, New York.