“Every young person is different”: how the student loan ban for non-academic students will damage creativity

After the government announces plans to block students who fail GCSE English and Maths from receiving student loans, Zesha Saleem tells us why it’s a dangerous and centrally flawed proposal.

Date
12 May 2022

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, marginalised young people are most likely going to be hit by the government’s new plans to bar student loans from students who fail English and Maths GCSE. Ministers are planning to ‘weed out’ lower quality courses – mainly on a creative pathway. The planned policy will hit, according to the IFS, deprived families as well as students from Black and South Asian backgrounds.

There are many problems with this disturbing plan. To judge young people on a set of exams, which may or may not represent their efforts in the past two years, is a very backward way to view success. There are many reasons people would fail their GCSEs. It doesn’t have to be because they didn’t study, or slacked off school. According to writer and poet Benjamin Zephaniah, dyslexic students will be affected greatly by the classist ban. Students with learning disabilities will be hard hit, as well as people who come from difficult backgrounds which can impact their performance.

It’s a centrally flawed proposal fuelled from a dangerous mind-set of basing a student’s self worth on a set of GCSE grades.

Every young person is different, and I know this from my own group of friends. Some of us (such as myself) were interested in studying a STEM degree, so a lot of our academic work was based on GCSEs when applying. On the other hand, some of my friends struggled with their GCSEs but are still studying what they immensely enjoy. If they were hit by the new plans from the Tories, then they’d be barred from entering a University campus because they’re simply not able to afford it. University students are able to thrive on campus despite failing their GCSEs – it might not be easy to believe, but it's true.

With certain degrees, strong GCSEs are a requirement – especially in courses like Medicine, Dentistry and Law. These are courses which rely more on academic ability than creativity. However, on creative courses, natural talent and creative ability allows students to flourish in ways they might not if they were judged based on how well they can rearrange an algebraic formula.

“In a time when we’re meant to encourage new, more diverse ways of building a successful career, we’re simply going backwards – and it’s going to hurt.”

Zesha Saleem

With the proposed plans, students on creative courses are more likely to be affected. It’s wrong to start judging them on how well they took a few exams on a random hot day in May. Not everyone is the same – some of us are good when it comes to academics, but others are stronger when it comes to creative work. I would be the worst person in an art studio (I can’t even draw a straight line) but don’t mind learning the pathophysiology of diseases. My friend, who is exceptional in art, is the opposite. That doesn't make one of us better than the other – we’re just good at different things.

You simply can't have a one size fits all approach. In the past few years, it felt as if society had started to accept this – with apprenticeship and entry level job schemes becoming more and more popular. Back in Sixth Form, I remember having HE assemblies where we were constantly encouraged to consider alternatives to University. While it wasn’t right for me personally, I know friends who jumped at the opportunities to utilise their talents where best. However, with this new proposal, it feels like we’re regressing into a time where your academic ability to complete a few papers dictates everything.

Some people say that basic GCSEs are important to get through life – I don’t rate that. In school, I was tested on the Pythagoras Theorem and lines and lines of poetry. That’s of no use to me now and the mathematical concepts I really need – like how to do taxes, savings and sorting out bills and rent – were never discussed. I only did my GCSEs to meet my entry requirements, not to guide me through practical life.

This disturbing proposal has the potential to lock out gifted, talented students who don’t need to be judged based on how well they perform on a few exams. It’s going to hit marginalised communities the hardest and is a sign of what this government values. In a time when we’re meant to encourage new, more diverse ways of building a successful career, we’re simply going backwards – and it’s going to hurt.

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About the Author

Zesha Saleem

Zesha is a freelance journalist and student doctor. She writes for a range of digital and print publications including The Times, The Guardian, Vogue and elsewhere.

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