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Eton headmaster: 'Victorian' exam system is 'unimaginative'

England’s exam system is “Victorian” and “unimaginative”, failing to prepare children for the modern world, the headmaster of Eton College has claimed.

Tony Little also said that English politicians should be wary of copying the highly academic model of education systems in the Far East, describing them as "a straightjacket".

Mr Little, who will retire next year from the Eton headship, added that schools focusing excessively on exam performance risk prioritising results over the broader process of education.

In an article for the Radio Times, Mr Little says that he supported the Lancashire primary that recently found itself in the media spotlight after its head sent a letter to students telling them not to worry about their test results.

Year 6 students at Barrowford Primary were all given a copy of the letter, along with their Key Stage 2 test results. The letter said that the school was proud of the effort they had made. But, it added, tests could not assess what makes every child “special and unique”. The letter then listed a number of talents and abilities that the children possess, and that could not be measured by exam results.

In his article, Mr Little says that he was interested by the public response to the letter. Some people saw it as “an overdue and necessary personal support of children”. Others perceived it as “a betrayal of their futures”.

“The Lancashire teachers were right – there are many ways of being smart,” he writes. “For a start, measuring only the easily measurable, such as exam results, can be misleading. There is a real risk that the measurable parts become more important than the whole.

“And we compound the problem by having an unimaginative exam system, little changed from Victorian times, which obliges students to sit alone at their desks, in preparation for a world in which, for much of the time, they will need to work collaboratively.”

He goes on to say that he had recently spoken to a school leader in the Chinese city of Shanghai who was looking to Britain for inspiration on how to teach children the skills they need in a global economy.

“Here is the irony: we seem intent on creating the same straitjacket the Chinese are trying to wriggle out of,” he writes.

A Department for Education spokeswoman responded to his claims: "We make no apology for holding schools to account for the results their pupils achieve in national tests and public examinations. Parents deserve to know that their children are receiving the very best possible teaching.

"But all good schools know that there is no tension between academic success and an excellent all-round education."

Related stories:

Teaching: a vocation or a 'congenial' job? - July 2013

Eton head dreams of a world without public schools - February 2010

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