By George Caffrey
Students have just received their exam results that will go some way to shaping, at the very least, the next few years of their lives. The emphasis placed on exam results is at an all-time high. We judge students, teachers and schools solely on their performance in these exams, our whole education system is geared toward them. Unfortunately, the exams the students sat and the results they will receive are unfit for purpose. This summer’s results are one of the first sets since the coalition government introduced extensive reform to the exams system. Unfortunately, the reforms do nothing to solve the huge problem that has undermined our education system for years.
The debate on our education system is argued with the greatest of intentions. The coalition government introduced numerous measures to make the curriculum “more challenging, more ambitious and more rigorous” (Michael Gove. Nov. 2012). However, many have argued that these reforms are not only misguided but harmful to our education system; “The damage this may do to a balanced curriculum across secondary education, particularly in GCSE and A-level years, is incalculable.” (Alan Mottershead, a member of the NAHT executive. May 2014) Regardless of your view on the specifics of the reforms introduced, I’m sure we could all agree with Mr. Gove’s stated aims. After all, who would want an education that is less ambitious, challenging or rigorous? Some of the other aims previously set out by Gove and continue to be pursued by his successor Nicky Morgan are for our schools to have “stretching, challenging curricula with exams that command respect among universities and employers alike” and provide “the sort of education which equips them to do whatever they want in life – and leaves no opportunity out of reach.” (Gove July 2014.) Again, I believe that most would agree that these are good starting points for a conversation on how to best educate our young people; the disagreements, although admittedly strongly felt and vast, therefore are simply over how best to achieve these aims. However, I believe the problem runs deeper than this. When addressing the DfE, Mr. Gove intended these two aims as being complementary. I believe they are actually in direct opposition with one another, at least with any popular, current conception of what an exam is. When one tries to think through how we get from the former aim to the latter, it becomes plain that these two policies are not consistent. The thought process would have to go something like this:
‘Why do we have an education system?’
‘In order to develop young people so that they can live harmoniously in, contribute to, and hopefully improve our society.’
‘How can we do this?’
‘We need to have schools that teach them the knowledge and skills with which to do it.’
‘OK, well how will we know which people are more suited to roles in society with the most responsibility, to roles that help us give appropriate platforms to those people who have the most to contribute, who are likely to change our society for the better?’
‘Good point, we need some kind of test to measure this.’
It is at this point, everything goes horribly wrong, because the answer we, as a society have come up with and continue to trust and value is:
‘Let’s give them a written exam under timed conditions on things that they have learned over the past 6 months/year/two years (delete as necessary), that’ll do the trick!’
When translated however, what we are really saying is:
‘Let’s give them an entirely artificial exam under arbitrary timed conditions that test skills that will never be used again in any walk of life’.
It should be obvious that when we break our system down in this way, our exam system does not, in any way at all, help us achieve our initial aim. I do not blame politicians for this at all; we all must take responsibility for this. Mr. Gove was right, it is a good idea that we seek to have “exams that command respect among universities and employers alike”, and as Secretary of State for Education, it is, and will continue to be, a more than legitimate aim to achieve this. We need to recognise that these exams do not, as Mrs. Morgan claims, demonstrate “the skills to embrace the change and challenges of modern life in an increasingly global world” (Nicky Morgan 18th June 2015) and we should stop valuing them as if they do.
The exams, as they are set up presently, are largely a test of memory. I can tell you, our teachers in this country work incredibly hard. Because of this, they can (and do) prepare students for almost every question that may arise in an exam. Students, at this point, simply need to recall the information and write it down coherently, that’s it. Now, you may at this point think that this is an over-simplification but, if it is, it is very close to the truth. I know of subject teachers who require students to memories twenty different essays so they are prepared to write out whichever one is asked for in the exam. This includes A Level philosophy. Of all subjects examined in the way that I object to, you would like to think that this would be the one that would require independent, critical thought in order to excel. Indeed, you would be justified in arguing that without the above requirements, it would fail to be philosophy. I do not blame the teachers for employing this strategy at all; it is clearly the most effective way of passing the exam; but it demonstrates that even our A Levels are testing memory and not a lot else.
At this juncture, I have encountered many who disagree with me. One person in particular stopped me to say:
‘Well it might not be perfect but it is very useful to have a measure how a person retains information and exams also tell us how hard a person is willing to work to achieve their goals. This must be useful.’
Let me take both of these claims. I am willing to concede that the amount of time and effort a person is willing to put into achieving their goals is something worth knowing as well as valuing and this should be recognised in any form of exam system we have in place. Hard work should be rewarded. However, in a system which is primarily based in recall of information, it is very difficult to extricate how hard someone has worked. Secondly, it is almost absolutely false that retention of information is a valuable skill at all in the modern world. I have a very good memory in terms of recalling information but the only time I can think where this actually comes in useful is on pub quiz night. Even then, I usually end up on the losing side because the team next to me can find far more information, far quicker, than me with a few taps on a touch screen phone. I am not the first person to notice this, even Mark Dawe, the OCR exam board chief executive says “everyone has a computer available to solve a problem but it’s then about how they interpret the results. We have tools, like Google, why would you exclude those from students’ learning?”. Mark Dawe is wrong however; we do not exclude these from students’ learning, in fact, schools are constantly looking for new ways to increase and improve the provision of ICT to enable students in their studies. The removal of these tools is only occurs when we come to judge the students.
The chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, Chris McGovern’s response to Mark Dawe’s proposal was to suggest that that this would be a “dumbing down of standards”. Giles Houston, Sales Director at ESNA Technologies, exhibited similar sentiment in his tweeted response to the article saying it was a “ridiculous idea. We all need to learn and retain and deliver informed decisions.” Maybe they are right, they both have far more experience in the working world than I do but if they are right, I think we should be more consistent. Among other things, the use of computers, data, student registers, even teacher planners and are useful tools in the delivering of education to our young people. Surely it would only be fair therefore, in order to avoid the ‘dumbing down’ of the professional standards for schools and teachers, that all of these tools are removed for OFSTED inspections. After all, ‘we all need to learn and retain and deliver informed decisions’ and these support aids are an obstacle to this. The same goes for all kinds of quality assurance that goes on in all kinds of workplaces. Many will dismiss my suggestion as facetious and of course it is. However, if the parallel between an exam and the workplace is accurate, then surely such tools should be available to students in exams. If it isn’t a fair parallel, then what exactly are these exams preparing our students for?
When one thinks about it, there are already tacit concessions that the conditions in these exams are arbitrary. Take for instance the time limits. Exams are to be completed within a specific time frame. That is, of course, unless you can demonstrate that you are entitled to extra time. On the face of it, this seems perfectly reasonable; no student should be disadvantaged because of dyslexia or any other hindrance that would distort their academic ability. Surely though, either it is useful to know what a student can produce in a limited amount of time or it is not. We should ask, what is the purpose of the time limit at all? I fail to see how the imposition of a time limit improves our ability to measure anything other than the ability to write under timed conditions. Whatever you think of my writing and the ideas expressed within it, it would seem difficult to argue that if I had sat in a silent room, along with a hundred others writing similar articles, with pen and paper, and given an hour and a half to complete it, the product would be anywhere near as accurate a reflection of my ability as a writer or thinker, or even of the views I hold. Indeed, it would be quite absurd to place these kinds of conditions on anyone trying to produce a piece of work in any other walk of life, and yet this is precisely the standard by which we measure young people’s aptitude to work in such a world.
Our whole education system is geared towards, and measured by, performance in exams. One thing should be absolutely clear; these exams do not reflect the real world in the slightest. We must address this fundamental issue. Otherwise, we can ‘reform’ education all we like, it will not help us to develop, or measure whether students have, “the skills to embrace the change and challenges of modern life in an increasingly global world” (Nicky Morgan. June 18th 2015).