May brings the start of public exams, and my annual GCSE, AS and A level exam regulation rundowns have featured prominently in recent assemblies. Rather like pre-flight safety announcements, these briefings are important no matter how seasoned the exam-taker (and by the time of A level, many students could be considered ‘frequent fliers’). I give them under the watchful ‘eye’ of former Perse Head Dr W.H.D. Rouse, whose portrait hangs in the hall gallery.
A century ago Rouse fought a long and ultimately unsuccessful rear guard action to keep public exams out of The Perse. He maintained that they were ‘quite misleading as a guide to comparative merit’ and reduced learning to ‘mere test preparation’. Fast forward a hundred years and I’m sure the good doctor would be horrified by the proliferation of public exams that currently dominate the last three years of school and the months of May and June.
The public exam system has four main purposes: it enables pupils to measure their attainment by means of marks and grades; it helps pupils develop by identifying strengths and weaknesses in understanding and ability; it provides a way of measuring teacher and school effectiveness; and, through the results of standardised tests, it allows higher education providers and employers to select applicants on the basis of objective comparative data. The first three purposes can all be achieved by alternative means.
Exam halls with rows of students sitting in silence may prevent cheating, but they are not the best environments for assessing key skills such as teamwork, communication and creativity. Standard exam questions sat by all candidates allow comparisons to be drawn, but they are blunt measures of pupil understanding, which is better assessed in dynamic, responsive situations where questioning adjusts to the abilities of candidates. Teacher and school effectiveness are most accurately measured by direct means for example by observing lessons and requesting feedback from pupils and parents. Public exam results where bright and conscientious pupils can mask teacher or school weaknesses are not always a reliable guide.
That just leaves the role for public exams to facilitate access to higher education and employment. Why not require pupils to sit just one set of public exams, and make the results available to them when they most need them? Those heading for university could sit intellectually challenging public exams at 18. Under this system, students would still follow a broad curriculum to 16, but external assessment could be limited to only English and maths to meet university matriculation and employer requirements. In other subjects learning could be for learning’s sake rather than to pass prescriptive public exams, resulting in more stimulating programmes of study.
If the time saved by not sitting public exams in Year 11 and the Lower Sixth was re-directed into additional teaching and learning, it would be realistic for the Upper Sixth to sit A levels in February, receive results in March and apply to university in April. Applying post A level would allow students and tutors to make more informed university selection decisions. Students would also benefit from a long summer between school and university for reading, travel, volunteering, work experience and employment.
Those students not aiming for university could sit more vocational exams designed by teachers and employers – exams which prepared them more effectively for the apprenticeships, traineeships and jobs to which they aspire. Of course students change their minds and develop at different stages of the educational journey. There would therefore need to be periods of reflection and ways of moving between the different examination streams.
A level reform is a step in the right direction in this regard, as students freed from lower sixth AS level exams can use the time to develop more breadth or depth in their interests. Yet Britain still has one of the most exam heavy education systems in the world. The GCSE and A level treadmill takes up a lot of curriculum time, pupil and teacher energy and school resources. Reduced to only one exam series, there would be more time and money to invest in the quality of the remaining assessment process. It would also take some stress out of the teenage years and give students more time for enriching and rewarding extra-curricular activities such as music, sport and drama which are important in providing a balanced and holistic education.
I would not go as far as Doctor Rouse in opposing all public exams. But this is a case where less really could be more.