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The intellectual virtues of failing your exams

Written tests are the best available way to show what students have learned. Sometimes it's good to judge, says Claire Fox

Failing exams ruins your life, allegedly. Amid all the kerfuffle caused by the summer grade debacle and Michael Gove's proposal to replace GCSEs with tougher O-level-style exams, this one unspoken prejudice lurks. It is assumed that if pupils fail they will be irrevocably damaged, their job opportunities thwarted and confidence eroded. The education secretary has been accused of "playing with young people's futures", of creating a "long tail of demoralised underachievers", his call for "rigorous exams" presented as a dread threat to those who may fare badly.

This approach seems to have informed the likes of Professor Les Ebdon, director of the Office for Fair Access, who has challenged the very idea of exams. Ebdon's support for the use of "contextual data in admissions" has made explicit the claim that exam results "paint a rather limited picture of a candidate's ability and aptitude". Never mind what you have achieved in that gruelling, three-hour exam; what could you achieve if given a fair chance? But if reliance on exam results is now deemed inappropriately narrow, what is the point of exams at all?

The young appear to have internalised these messages. Pupils seem desperate to acquire more qualifications, but often as a means of gaining competitive advantage rather than as evidence of knowledge acquired. Many youths complain that they are hurt by the chatter over grade inflation when they have worked hard to achieve their A-Cs, as though marks should be awarded for diligence and poor grades might imply a personal affront.

By branding exams as barriers that exclude young people from opportunities, inevitably we react by either making these exams easier or demonising them as instruments of inequality. What a terrible burden for the humble end-of-course exam: it is charged with determining the life prospects of pupils, and increasing social mobility and self-esteem. And once results are viewed chiefly as a credentialising route to social success, we seem to imagine that is their core purpose. Are we in danger of forgetting their educational role and the intellectual virtues of written examinations in their own terms, of passing them, even failing them? After all, even if there were no problems of youth unemployment or social inequity, surely we would still want to instil the young with knowledge and then test its acquisition.

Take a step back and consider that great humanist enterprise of education. You teach a subject and your aim is to transmit as much knowledge as possible. This is regardless of the capacities or personal interests of your pupils. It is a rich intellectual legacy that we owe the young.

When pupils complain that they can't see the relevance of a subject and moan that exams only test useless knowledge that they will never need again, we face them down and say: "You are entitled to know about this. Who cares if it enhances your employability? It will enhance your mind." In many ways, it is even incidental whether pupils achieve an A or an F grade; we should hand over this knowledge regardless. For years I taught English literature to "vocational" students in FE colleges, until it was deemed a waste of their time because they did not achieve academic results. Instead, the hairdressers were put on a banal GNVQ-style "literacy for hairdressing" course. They all gained qualifications, but were much the poorer educationally.

Discriminatory in the best possible sense

Let's remind ourselves that exams can provide motivation by helping to focus learning on an end point. They are sometimes accused of encouraging rote learning and regurgitation, but are actually an antidote to such a technocratic approach to knowledge, allowing pupils to demonstrate their ability to analyse information and to apply their understanding independently.

We know the dangers of short-term cramming with no longer term value, but memorising, revising, forcing oneself to demonstrate what one has understood is proof that one has internalised and can articulate what has been passed on in the classroom. The exam process encapsulates the virtue of honesty and the vice of cheating, and makes serious the ideal of students making knowledge their own.

In an era that is nervous of making judgements, differentially grading people may seem anachronistic. But exams are by their nature discriminatory, in the best possible sense. There is nothing more condescending than refusing to make distinctions between second-rate and excellent. And, shh, don't say it too loudly, but failing exams can be good for students. Failure can help young people to discover what they do not know. It can toughen them up to deal with disappointment, to pick themselves up, to try again and realise that life goes on. Some of history's most impressive individuals did abysmally at school, often prompting a sense of determination to succeed elsewhere.

For all the bleating about unfairness, exams are actually the most impartial of assessment methods; they are objective measures, untainted by prejudice or favouritism. Today's relativist zeitgeist and the fashionable antipathy towards universal standards do pupils no favours. The preference for the more palatable term "assessment" over "exam", and personalised, subjective self-examination, ironically flies in the face of equal treatment. When competitive public exams were campaigned for by educational reformers and workers' organisations in 19th-century Britain, they were considered weapons to attack patronage and corruption, their universality a bulwark against the entrenched privilege of the elites. That noble spirit is worth re-examining. Never mind one nation, let's celebrate one examination for all.

Claire Fox is the director of the Institute of Ideas and the convener of its annual Battle of Ideas festival, which takes place at the Barbican in London this weekend. One strand of debates, the Battle for the Classroom, has been sponsored by TES. For many years, Fox taught English in FE colleges.

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