Leader - Exams are not the only path to wisdom

It was in AD605 that an unnamed Confucian civil servant suggested a standardised test for entrance into the Chinese civil service, the first recorded exam in history. Quite what this mandarin would make of the global industry spawned by his nifty idea is anyone's guess, but he would surely have been amazed.

Perhaps our 7th-century bright spark would also have been astonished by the lengths to which parents, teachers, schools and, yes, governments go to ensure their children achieve a top grade.

Maybe not, though. The cliff-edge nature of his original idea and its life-changing consequences for those who passed (a potential route to the top of the Chinese imperial state) suggests he would empathise with 21st-century folk desperate to secure stellar marks.

Nowhere is this more apparent right now than in South Korea, arguably the most Confucianist of modern countries. It is little exaggeration to describe the exam culture prevalent there as akin to Prohibition Chicago.

This state of affairs was brought into sharp focus last month when the US' College Board felt obliged to cancel all SATs in South Korea, which students were preparing to sit in order to gain admittance to American universities, after a consignment of papers was stolen, and almost certainly for sale on the black market (see pages 16-17).

But worse - perhaps because such cheating is far from universal - is the cramming. This is a country where the government has to enforce a curfew of 10pm to prevent children from working into the small hours. This is a country where many students consider the school day to be an opportunity for rest ahead of a night with a revision tutor. This is a country where dozens of teenagers commit suicide every year owing to exam stress.

This is what can happen when a nation develops what one expert has described as "an almost cultural obsession with ... success in educational tests".

And yet, this dystopian nightmare is not what one usually reads about South Korea's schools. The country is most commonly held up as a nation that took little more than two generations to catapult itself from a literacy rate of 22 per cent in 1945 to a position very close to the summit of the world's educational pile.

Right now, governments around the globe are looking to reform their exam systems, often driven by Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tables and how they rank against countries such as South Korea. In England, for example, a whole new GCSE system is currently in the latter stages of gestation, while in the US, policymakers are wrestling with a new core curriculum, which will bring with it an assessment regime.

Many who drive these changes in the UK and elsewhere argue that coursework, modules and retakes are detrimental to the development of children and that exams need to be more rigorous - and more final.

That may well be the case - certainly some evidence exists to support it - but one thing should remain crystal clear: we must never lose sight of the fact that there is so much more to education than simply passing exams.

Gerard Kelly is away.


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