Could our obsession with exams lead to long term failure?

24 January 2017
Posted by Heidi Salmons

The Telegraph, 23.01.17, HMC Head Iain Kilpatrick, Sidcot School warns there is a real danger that we are educating our young people for a world that doesn't exist.

While many children spent Christmas cramming for January’s common entrance exams and my colleagues await the publication of the Secondary School Performance tables, as Head of a non-selective independent school, I have to ask myself the question; What are these exams actually measuring and what are the long term effects of pushing children and young people through the process?

With the Institute of Directors (IoD) criticising schools for failing to prepare children for the workplace with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed, it begs the question what’s the point of our obsession with exam results? Have we just become exam factories as claimed by the IoD? How are we measuring intelligence? What about creativity and valuable interpersonal skills - are they worthless?

I take inspiration from the likes of Sir Ken Robinson who argues that schools cannot meet the needs of the future by just refining what we have done in the past. Today’s education system, which was designed and conceived in a different age, is based around the thinking that there are only two types of ability – academic and non-academic. This has led to many brilliant people thinking they are not ‘intelligent’ as they are being judged against this sadly limiting mindset.

There is somewhat of a ‘production line’ mentality to our education system – ringing bells, children educated in batches based on date of manufacture (their age), siphoned off into separate subjects and separate facilities.

Instead of nurturing skills that are valuable in a computerised age, the current model stamps out innate creativity and divergent thinking, with standardisation being the main goal. I firmly believe that it’s time to change the paradigm and move away from an archaic system where the focus firmly remains on testing.

The factory analogy is pretty accurate as it seems our system is more at home in the industrial age and not the current ‘knowledge era’. Schools are still squashing children into an antiquated education machine, which spits them out as either bruised and battered rejects or as conformists; experts in rote learning and memory challenges rather than deep thinking and enquiry.

I favour a system that has a wider set of values, focusing on students’ wellbeing, without cramming or hot housing. In my experience, a gentler and more rounded approach to education encourages students to perform well not only in exams, but in life in general.

The IoD calls for students who are “imbued with curiosity, open-mindedness and the ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated bits of information”. They are NOT looking for students who have been trained to simply recall information to pass tests. The skills that are useful to employers are almost the opposite of the skills that are applauded in our education system – the ability to be effective in team working and to find good solutions through collaboration rather than the being able to provide a single ‘correct’ answer in isolation under exam conditions.

Universities also have a critical part to play if we are to change anything. Offering entry by grade only and a well written personal statement means that individual talent and ability is lost. And even they are becoming unstuck as this model unravels. As declining applications bite home, the likes of the University of Bristol are lowering entry grades for students from disadvantaged areas and giving guaranteed places to every school in the city. While I welcome the change, I have to ask is this really shifting the paradigm or is it just a sharp business move?

Fortunately, we in the independent sector are less shackled by the constraints laid down by the Government, meaning we can take brave steps and lead change.

However, we can only offer new approaches if parents are brave enough to embrace them. For many families, exam results are the main driver when choosing a school, but there are many others who are relieved to discover an alternative to the hot house environment.

We must all be more aware of the never-ending pressures on young people and the potential long term impact on their self-esteem and mental health.

There are a number of strategies that can be implemented to help provide young people with a more balanced learning experience. My school works with Educationalist Guy Claxton, who believes that children should be encouraged to ask questions and think independently - not at the expense of Shakespeare or the Periodic Table - but alongside these.

We use learning wheels to map skills with values to inform our pedagogy, while ensuring that children feel safe and confident to speak out and be listened to. Our diverse programmes are developed to foster leadership, adaptability and resilience in all students.

Of course, our students will sit exams in the end and be judged against the same criteria as every other student in the country. Outcomes will continue to be important and of course, qualifications are the passport to a young person’s future career.

However, there is far more to learning. If we take the time to nurture our young people, we have a greater chance of equipping them with the values and attributes they need to become engaged learners and achieve long-term career success.

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