The Why and the How of Exams

There has been a torrent of educational reform in the last few months – from A levels being put up for adoption by the Universities (who appear not to want them), through to GCSE being replaced by EBC’s to the on-going national curriculum and school accountability consultations.

In the exams debate there has been huge discussion about what we should examine (everyone knows what must be in a syllabus), when we should examine it (module timings), where we should examine (the coursework debate) but precious little on why we do exams at all and how we design a sane process for taking forward educational assessment.

The fact of the matter is the current examining situation has just evolved almost by accident. It is not the same all over the world and it is not the same in all successful countries as measured on international educational comparisons. There were civil service exams at the time of the empire, there were exams used for the Victorian version of performance related pay for teachers (later abandoned), which eventually led to the grammar school certificates of education, at Special, Advanced and Ordinary level, which then collided with mass education, entitlement, raising of the school leaving age, the national curriculum, SAT testing, GCSE and the current day. At no stage has the reason why we examine been made especially clear.

I urge those who lead the national debate to start with the discussion of why we do exams – then the what and where and when and how and whom we test will seem so much more obvious. I have two initial thoughts.

First, with the raising of the participation age away from 16 and towards 18, why will we need exams at 16 at all? I cannot think of a single reason why we need exams at 16 and would much prefer to see some very straightforward competency and entitlement based tests at 14, then differentiating exams at 18 as appropriate. At 14 that would mean basic literacy and numeracy and citizenship subjects like history, geography and science. The test would be employer driven, criterion referenced and be all about equipping future citizens with a basic minimum to be part of society. At 18 the exams would be appropriate to whatever the students are doing by then. In the academic world they could then be free to actually differentiate properly between that minority of students, perhaps 35%, who should be studying academic A levels. Such tests would be norm referenced, with benchmarks between years and across subjects, so the best actually are the best.

My fear is we will not get this because we have an educational infrastructure equipped to a break point at 16 and some imaginative thinking is needed. After all the most persuasive argument about not having electric cars is that we do have petrol stations, but we do not have plugs! There is no doubt education up to 14 and beyond 14 should be different educational worlds. The raising of the school leaving age to 16 all those years ago never did meet that challenge head on.

Next, and in a sense crucial to any meaningful progress with these ancient debates, is to recognize that the rhythm of the political process is simply not the rhythm of educational reform. I am all for change but time and again the educational evolution has been rushed by the imperative of the political timescale.

Just as the financial cycle has been decoupled to some extent from politics by giving to the Governor of the Bank of England the task of setting interest rates, so the role of a School Commissioner, not as now, but with equal status to the bank governor (surely our children’s education is as vital as our economy – actually it is our future economy) should be allowed to preside over key features of educational policy aside from the political five-yearly timescales. The Commissioner could oversee standards over time both in examining and in teaching, the probity of exam boards, properly evaluate international comparisons and make a sustained contribution to improving education in the UK.

These are interesting fear is that a lack of imagination and an obsession with hurried change driven by political timescales will mean we never actually make a difference.

By Philip Britton, Headmaster, Bolton School