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Open season on GCSEs and A-levels

Confidence is draining out of our exams system quicker than credibility in George W Bush's stances on Iraq and global warming. But it gives me no pleasure to have to say this in the very week pupils return to the grind of public exams.

What are exams for? They are there to provide the focus for stimulating and challenging teaching. They are a device to assess how well students have understood the courses they take and to discriminate between candidates.

And they are a means of assessing students' suitability for further courses of study.

Our current examination system is achieving none of these three objectives sufficiently well at present.

In the past decade, the treadmill of examination preparation has stultified good teaching in the classroom. As exams have proliferated, and as they have splintered into bite-size chunks, imaginative and individual teaching have lost out.

The classroom experience has become dominated by teaching for exams rather than teaching subjects. We are producing not so many excellent historians or physicists, but lots of students who are excellent at history GCSE or physics A-level.

Teachers rightly complain of a loss of initiative and creativity in their lessons. Some have left the profession for this very reason, or are on the verge of doing so. They came into the profession to teach, not to instruct.

Last week I observed a science lesson, and very good it was too.

But I picked up a textbook from one pupil's desk which read "written for the AS-level exam by the chief examiner" and it contained "all the students need to know to ensure top marks". What happened to books aimed at sixth-formers and written by academics? What happened to books designed to stimulate young minds in an "open-ended way"?

My belief is the exam regime is militating against good teaching, rather than supporting it. But is it faring better in the other two objectives? GCSEs and A-levels are not successfully discriminating between candidates.

With half the candidates from grammar and independent schools achieving A grades at A-levels, it is demotivating for the most able.

Imagine universities if half the students received first-class degrees.

Recipients would feel disheartened, and it would be clear to all that the universities had failed to create an exam capable of sifting the brilliant from the merely able. At GCSE and A-level this is precisely the problem.

The exams fail to distinguish the top intellects from the very well drilled.

The current exams are also increasingly failing the last test, which is to provide a means for universities to select students. Hence the recent increase in numbers of universities wanting to know marks at A-level, rather than just the grade and setting tests to choose suitable candidates.

The present exam system also fails sufficiently to test and assess vocational skills, which is why the whole Tomlinson agenda needs to be revisited.

All teachers currently want to be applauding the work that their students are doing, and they will be gearing themselves up for the annual barrage of criticism with results in late August about "grade inflation".

They will also recognise, as do I, much that is good about A-levels and GCSEs, and praise improvements that exam boards have made having listened to schools. But the system as it stands now is breaking apart.

There are solutions at hand, and these will be discussed at the next conference for state and independent heads and senior teachers at my school on June 27.

Anthony Seldon is master of Wellington College in Berkshire

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