The cancellation of GCSE and A-level exams during the coronavirus pandemic was controversial, but it has also led many educators to question whether such exams are an outdated form of assessment. Two academy trust leaders go head to head on whether we should ditch end-of-year exams once and for all
'Exams level the playing field'
Good assessment aims to provide a balanced and fair evaluation of every student. In my eyes, there is no fairer
way to test the knowledge and ability of students and to reward their efforts over time than through exams.
Exams level the playing field for everybody and give students the platform to show what they can and cannot do. It’s the same questions – on the same day, under the same conditions – for everybody.
So, I never imagined that I would agree to there being no exams in an academic year, but it would be unrealistic and unfair to force exams to go ahead in 2021.
There are no easy decisions here. We completely understand why the government has taken the path it has to ensure children who have missed so much face-to-face education get a fairer deal. We’re not in a normal year, so we welcome the news that students will be awarded grades based on the judgement of their teachers.
But we must see a return to exams next year if external factors allow.
Exams are the most equitable way to assess a student’s academic performance. They are marked externally and put everybody into the same basket. No other methodology is as fair.
Our students have told us that they prefer exams, as they want to show what they are capable of through their own hard work. Children like to have something to work towards and they want to be in control of their own destinies. They also feel that if their grades are based on somebody’s opinion, the process could be too subjective.
“What if my teacher has been away for a long time because of Covid?” one student asked me recently. “How will the teacher make a decision on my grades if they don’t know me properly?”
Fortunately, as a large trust, we can do lots of moderation and use a consistent approach to awarding grades across all
This is an understandable workaround for the current year. But it can’t be the answer long term. Exams enable us to accurately test a student’s breadth of understanding
of different topics.
There is also evidence that both studying for and sitting exams deepens learning and wider cognitive skills, as the process of retrieving information strengthens memory.
So, we know that learning is particularly strong when students are tested. Rather than our students passively reading and remembering, we want them to question and be questioned. Strengths and weaknesses can also be assessed through exams, and teachers can better understand where more attention in class may be needed.
So again, we strongly believe that students should sit them next year if conditions allow. Until then, we plan to do everything we can to give our students the best possible opportunities to progress on to the next stage of their careers.
Jane Millward is chief executive of E-ACT
'We need fundamental reform of the system'
As CEOs of a multi-academy trust, we believe the pandemic has made it glaringly obvious that exams are not the fairest way to assess the performance of all students. They inhibit social mobility and they are no longer an appropriate means of assessment in the 21st century.
Exams work well for those who are good at revising and remembering, but this is not a skill set shared by all students. Rote learning is not even particularly prized in our modern workplace or society.
What’s more, revising and remembering can be enhanced by private tutoring, and so a focus on these skills further disadvantages young people without access to private tuition.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that our education system is not prepared for assessment without exams. But that is not an argument to maintain the current system. Instead, we need fundamental reform of the system, including high-stakes standardised tests, so that young people
are better equipped to thrive in the world beyond education.
The big issue facing schools, now students are back and things are fully operational, is not how to “catch up” students but that education as we remember it will not be fit for purpose for our young people. Welcoming them back to the classrooms of old simply will not do.
Restricting their capacity to explore ideas and applying their new-found creativity to the confines of the traditional classroom seems anathema. Restricting their learning to acquiring the knowledge set out in a national curriculum designed in the 1980s seems, frankly, absurd. The pandemic has provided a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reset the education system.
What has become evident to parents over the course of the pandemic is the value of school. By this we mean the value of the principle of school, not the content of school. Mass home education has somewhat dampened the attitude that “the education system was good enough for me, so it is good enough for my children”.
Let’s start a conversation about how to equip “generation creative” with the infrastructures and learning opportunities that they actually need to capitalise on their unique experiences of education to date.
Let’s infuse and embed the curriculum with opportunities to work alongside real employers who are desperate to have meaningful engagement with young people.
The ideal replacement for exams already exists in academia. Anyone studying for a PhD has to present evidence of their work and then experience a detailed viva or interview.
Students at the end of Year 13 could present a portfolio of work, either across a range of subjects or related to a particular area such as medicine, showing their research, their understanding and their application of knowledge. Such an interview, presented to a mixed group of educationalists and business/industry leaders, would test the validity
of a student’s work and also allow them to demonstrate many of the “future skills” required in today’s workplaces.
The world today needs active problem solvers. Schools need to model this by rethinking and redesigning education.
Steve and Paula Kenning are co-founders and trustees of Aspirations Academies Trust
This article originally appeared in the 19 March 2021 issue under the headline “Is this the chance for us to get rid of exams for good?”