The English like public exams. They must do to subject their children to so many of them during the otherwise delightful days of early summer. Late summer is given over to public exam results, analysis, appeals and league tables; public interest is high and exam results dominate media headlines. And once the results excitement dies down, and students move on, our fascination with exams continues to dictate the educational agenda. Some popular questions currently being considered include: should teachers be able to set papers for exams taken by their students? Are standards the same across all exam boards and subjects? How accurate is marking in more subjective subjects like English and History? Can universal exams differentiate accurately between high achieving students so that top grades are awarded fairly?
Politicians are particularly keen on public exams as they are crude ways of holding thousands of schools and hundreds of thousands of teachers to account. As the education system has fragmented into an ever more complex myriad of school types politicians have struggled to find easy levers to pull to bring about educational change. Using the exams regulator, Ofqual, to tell the three English exam boards what to assess and how to examine it, is an easy way for ministers to control what 14–18 year olds are taught.
Perse students are very good at exams, and the School regularly achieves some of the best public exam results in the country. I congratulate all my pupils on their examination results and I am proud of their achievements. In many ways exams serve The Perse and its pupils well.
However, using exams to shape education is a case of the tail wagging the dog. Exams are essentially measuring devices for recording academic attainment. They are the weighing scales for part of the educational process but they should not be its driving force. A preoccupation with exams can get in the way of wider academic learning with students and teachers focusing on exam specifications rather than following their intellectual curiosity into off syllabus topics. The understandable need to prepare for public exams takes pupils away from extra-curricular activities and has degraded summer sport, music and drama. Examination pressure can also trigger or add to pastoral difficulties.
Many of us know from personal experience that exam success or failure is no predictor of subsequent life attainment. Exams test a limited range of academic knowledge and skills in a restricted way. Exams effectively sample ability and understanding; three hours of tests to assess two years of learning. Pupils can be lucky or unlucky with the questions that come up, and as with any sampling technique exam results may or may not be representative of true understanding.
Essential interpersonal skills such as oral communication and teamwork are not compatible with solitary exams sat in silence. Few real world tasks take the form of set questions with defined mark schemes that have to be completed in a prescribed time. Even the practice of hand writing exams is woefully out of date in a digital world, and every year otherwise excellent students receive lower grades than they should because of poor quality or slow handwriting.
The English exam load should be slimmed down and reformed in modern ways that go beyond the linear versus modular debate. Some tests should be computerised not just to address the hand writing question, but to allow dynamic and differentiated assessment where the questions posed vary in accordance with the ability of the candidate (as judged by prior questions answered). Such computer adaptive testing means that very talented students can be set very challenging questions to finely gauge the extent of their abilities, whilst candidates who might struggle with a subject can get easier questions which they can get right to avoid feelings of failure and the resulting loss of self- confidence. Although not suitable for all subjects, tests sat on computers can be marked promptly and accurately by digital means thus improving the results process.
It is not just a case of improving exams – we need to recognise their limits. So much of what is good and important in education is not examinable. Trying a new activity, becoming more confident, being kind to others, developing emotional intelligence, growing resilience, working effectively as a team, and saying more in class are all key educational milestones that are not examined at GCSE or A level.
When I talk to alumni about the long term value of a Perse education they highlight the durable worth of the non examined curriculum. Long after alumni have forgotten the details of the Haber Process or the causes and consequences of the South Sea Bubble, they will still be using the communication skills learnt in debating society, the teamwork acquired on the sports field, the resilience gained from outdoor pursuits expeditions, the values shaped by assemblies, or the self- belief fostered through good pastoral care.
Exams are the highly visible and much discussed tip of the educational iceberg. Exam results have an immediate short term value in influencing university and job applications, and shaping the fortunes of schools and their Heads. But their longer term value is less. Education is about far more than the marks and grades achieved in assessments. Exam mania needs to be kept in check, and a broader educational perspective embraced.