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The Exam Fiasco: There is Another Way

Words almost fail at the news that mock exams scores for A-Level and GCSEs in England can be used instead of the Ofqual standardised results. Some immediate thoughts come to mind:

The mocks option shows a total disregard for the judgement of teachers. Ministers clearly couldn’t stomach the Scottish decision to rely on their professional verdicts alone. This is part of the thirty-year narrative of teacher bashing, which we have seen rear its ugly head regularly in the last few months, as the teaching unions fought to ensure the safety of their members during the pandemic.

Second, it shows the on-going obsession with grade inflation. This has been a crusading cause for the current edu-political regime, and now looks – how shall we put it? – pretty mean-minded given all the stress that the current crop of A-Level and GCSE students have been through.

Third, it shows total ignorance of the decisions schools had to take in the weeks leading up to lockdown.  For some schools this included cancelling the mocks scheduled for March 2020.  This means that students will now have to be judged presumably on an even earlier set of mocks (such is the endless cycle of exam preparation that most English state school students now have to endure).  Only the most conscientious students will do well out of the government’s new grading option. At the risk of oversimplifying, middle-class girls will do OK. Boys of all backgrounds are less likely to do well, and could see their scores being several grades below what they would have achieved in conventional exam conditions. Private school students are, of course, likely to do better than state school students.

But that doesn’t mean that the annual exam hall ritual is some kind of guarantee of impartiality. Far from it. You have the same issues of norm referencing, meaning that around 30 per cent of students will automatically fail. There are claims of erratic marking at both GCSE and A-level. And let’s not forget the students who freak out in exams, and don’t do their best. There’s plenty of them.

But most of all, the narrow, academic exams so beloved of this government tell you so little about what young people are capable of. There is no correlation between your exam scores and how well you do in a particular job. More and more companies are ignoring qualifications and setting their own tests and requirements, geared more specifically to the skills and knowledge they need. Yet such is the manipulative nature of the education system these days – driven by an inspection system still largely about results – that students are constantly told that GCSEs and A-levels will determine their whole lives. As universities face fewer foreign students and many more places to fill, this is an even bigger lie than ever.

It’s time to look at the many alternatives out there: credentialing, for example, being rolled out by some private schools in the US through the ‘mastery transcript’ scheme; the broader qualification at 18 that Sir Mike Tomlinson came up with fifteen years ago, giving a richer picture of what students are capable of, and nurturing the skills and knowledge they will need for the huge challenges that lie ahead; and ditching high stakes exams at 16 because… well, what’s the point of them?  No wonder so many countries don’t have exams at both 16 and 18.

As soon as Gavin Williamson starts talking about the ‘gold standard’ of GCSEs and A-levels, something may need to be thrown at the telly. Open-minded politicians, please actually open your minds to the alternatives to the mind-shrinking education system we are currently stuck with. It’s time to mothball exam factories for good.