Seven Myths About Exams

I don’t know about you, but I have had enough of the hoo-ha about exam results day. When I got my O-level results and one token CSE – for this is how old I am – no one batted an eyelid. The day that everyone opened their envelopes wasn’t on the morning radio bulletins. You wouldn’t get distant relatives suddenly getting in touch to find out how you’d done.

Things now seem to be utterly ridiculous, like so much about British life at the moment. Friends whom I rate are fretting days beforehand. They are taking time off work to be there for their sons and daughters on results day. Everyone seems to have fallen hook, line and sinker for the government line that these results are the most meaningful thing in a child’s education. I would just like to make the following corrections to this particular bit of often media-assisted state propaganda.

Myth Number 1: the results are a fair assessment of a child’s academic achievements. They absolutely are not. There are far too many random factors that determine how a child does. For example, have they been tutored up to the eyeballs? Are they at a school that is essentially an exam factory rather than still trying to provide a semblance of an interesting education? Does the child have a bedroom or somewhere they can work in – as the columnist Barbara Ellen rightly pointed out the other day, how many of the children who are being housed in one bedroom flats, bed and breakfasts or shipping containers were able to pull in a slew of top grades?

Myth Number 2: they reflect a child’s talents. They do not. As any parent knows, children can have a whole range of capabilities, not just academic. You can be brilliantly empathetic, you can be an amazing orator or salesperson, you can work in a team and bring out the best in everyone, you can create beautiful work for a project you have developed over time, you can build something, you can fix something… and so the list goes on. None of these talents is valued by GCSEs or A-levels now that they are hyper-academic with no course work and minimal speaking and listening. You only have to look at some of our politicians – many of whom have been to Oxbridge – to see how extreme academic prowess is by no means the full toolbox.

Myth Number 3: you need top results to succeed in life. Total rubbish. This year it’s anticipated there will be more university places than students. That trend is likely to increase as foreign students stop applying to British universities. Plus sixth formers are starting to question the argument that university is the be all and end all of educational success. What’s the point forking out £50,000 for average teaching and an uninspiring course? Plus, outside politics, there is not a single bit of evidence that top academic performance ensures success in life – however you define that.

Myth Number 4: you need to put all your results on your CV when you apply for a job. Nonsense. In fact some companies now deliberately don’t ask anything about your schooling, preferring to set you admissions tasks that test the kind of skills and knowledge they are looking for.

Myth Number 5: doing well academically will prepare you for life. This has to be one of the biggest lies out. The kind of skills that our children are going to need are the very ones that are currently sidelined by the high stakes exam system. I mean things like being able to think critically and creatively, to have the deeper skills and resilience that allow you to have more than one career, and to have powerful knowledge to change the world rather than being able to remember and write out chunks of text. Let’s focus on our human skills, not the sort that robots and computers can do a whole lot better than us. If anyone tries to tell me that tests are best because life is a test, I might have to go and finally burn my A- level work (some of which I fear is still languishing in my mum’s loft).

Myth Number 6: results are the best way to measure educational standards. Codswallop. Being good at passing exams doesn’t mean you have had a good education. What about not just the human qualities I have listed above, but a child’s values? Aren’t they just as important? I refer again to some of our best known politicians, who’ve allegedly had a top education. It reminds me of the famous EM Forster quote about those who go into the world with “fairly-developed minds and underdeveloped hearts.”

Some of these chaps in power like to talk about character education. What do they mean by this? I suspect they mean that kids need to toughen up and put up with the mediocrity which defines so much of our current system. But in fact proper character education should surely be about developing courage, compassion, trust, curiosity and the like. It’s a goal really worth striving for, and there are schools that are trying to do this properly (such as XP school in Doncaster and the Relational Schools movement).

Myth Number 7: there is no better system than high stakes exams. Hmmmm. I would suggest taking a look at what’s going on internationally, where there is a good deal of work on how to assess students more broadly. For a start, lots of countries don’t test students at 16 (Finland being the most frequently cited example). Even in America – where again there’s no equivalent of GCSEs – the “Mastery Transcript” concept is being developed by some private schools. When students are ready (so “stage, not age”) they are rigorously assessed in modules which show their mastery of a variety of skills and areas of knowledge. Their competence in these various fields is put together to form a detailed picture of an individual student. Yale and Harvard are supporting the project, which is developing fast.

One thing that is most definitely not a myth is that a third of students are currently being written off by the new GCSEs. The national pass rate for English and maths last year was only 64 %. What future for the 36 % who don’t get these most basic of qualifications – the ones you do actually need for most jobs? Both the National Education Union and the Association of School and College Leaders have spoken out about the forgotten third. ASCL’s own survey had senior leaders reporting that some students were simply refusing to take GCSEs, they were so demoralised.

These are the students who most likely don’t have a private tutor, or they don’t have parents who went to university, or they don’t speak English as a first language, or they have additional needs or challenging home circumstances, or multiple combinations of the above. It seems that kids who are already disadvantaged in various ways are far more likely to fail these spuriously high stakes tests.

What happens to these young people? Some clearly remove themselves from the system, as ASCL has uncovered. Others, one suspects, have already been quietly sidelined through off-rolling. Do they just disappear into casual work or no work at all? Others stay at school and repeatedly retake maths and English GCSE to try to pass. Is this really an effective education system in terms of creating citizens who can contribute to both society and the economy?

Let’s not forget where these ideas originate. The reforms were introduced by Michael Gove when he was education secretary. And who was his special adviser? None other than Dominic Cummings.   Anyone who has tried to read his ideas on education will know that he sees intelligence in a highly academic sense. Thus we have a system that aims to motivate and single out the extremely intelligent students (in his terms) – “the diamonds in the rough “ as someone once put it. Hence the new, granular grading system that piles pressure on academic students to get a 9.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of Gove and Cummings to find these students in all social backgrounds, because I think their belief in social mobility (as opposed to social justice) is genuine. But the trouble is that it is a deficit model that writes off the majority as having only limited abilities or none whatsoever. Then there’s Cummings’ alleged interest in eugenics. While there is evidence that genes can play a part in intelligence, only the purblind could ignore the effect of personal circumstance on doing well at school. Diane Reay’s book, Miseducation, explores this brilliantly. But of course none of this is taken into account in exam halls.

So we need to start really questioning the aims of our education system. We need a much more forensic approach. Let’s hear the human stories of the students who disengage from education – and the ones who have “succeeded” but can see how little that’s really worth. And let’s hear a whole lot more about different systems which resist summing up an education with a handful of scores. As Geoff Barton, the general secretary of ASCL, puts it, “in the longer term we simply must review the exam system to find a more humane way in which we can assess the abilities of young people and prepare them for the lives.” I am not sure how long many of our students can wait.

 

 

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