The exam system is seriously hindering efforts to prepare young people for the workplace

In his blog, 09/06/14, HMC member Mark Steed, Principal of Berkhamsted School argues that testing young people's ability to work alone in silence without access to technology is outdated and irrelevant

The present British examination system is seriously hindering efforts by schools to prepare young people for the workplace, says Mark Steed, Principal of Berkhamsted School, a highly regarded independent school in Hertfordshire. It stifles the very qualities that British businesses need and urgently needs reforming, he said. Steed said: "The exam system is the biggest obstruction to preparing young people for the world of work because it is completely out of kilter with what people actually do in the workplace. At no point in any job do people ever work alone, in silence, without technology or collaboration. And handwritten essays are just not something that anyone produces in the workplace."

He said that while teachers have been quick to respond to the changing needs of the workplace by introducing technology and collaboration into the classroom, their ability to do more is being seriously inhibited by the need to prepare young people for exams which bear no resemblance to the way the workplace actually operates. He said: "Education is embracing new technologies at an extremely fast rate.

Teachers are using laptops and iPads and tablet devices in lessons and they are encouraging students to work collaboratively through software such as Google Docs. But the problem is that we have still got a 19th century examination system which involves sitting in rows in silence without technology or collaboration."

Steed warned that the present examination system also inhibits creativity and flair, the very things that we as a society should be encouraging in young people - not just for their personal development, but because they help drive the economy forward.

He said: "In recent years exam boards have tried to automate their marking processes so we have ended up with tick box marking of A levels. In the past somebody who had a bit of flair could write an essay and be given an A for it even if it was not the approach the examiner expected, because they had written it in an interesting way." "But that has now been drummed out of the exam system because examiners do onscreen marking with a checklist of all the key words which need to be there. The consequence is that we are coming up with a generation of people who are very accurate and don't make mistakes, but who also don't take risks."

He added: "The competitive advantage of Britain as a nation is based around problem solving and creativity but the exam system at the moment mitigates against both of those things. It punishes people who are creative or quirky or whose answers aren't the exact ones on the sheet. That means teachers end up having to rein in students' creativity and problem solving skills in order to prepare them to sit these exams."

Steed called on the government to urgently overhaul the examination system so that it rewards rather than stifles qualities needed in the workplace, saying: "We need an exam system that encourages creativity, and rewards students who come up with nonstandard answers. Creativity is one of the UK's great strengths - we produce brilliant designers and scientists, engineers and architects and we have some of the most creative and best problem solvers in the world. But unless we sort out the exam system we are in danger of losing that."

This article was written by Rachel Bridge and appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 09/06/2014

Read more on Mark's blog.