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Opinion: 'Let’s admit it: we have a problem with exams'

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A teacher friend once ruefully pointed something out to me. “Results season,” he said, “is as stressful for the teachers as it is for the pupils.”

He wasn’t concerned about his position; it was worrying about the kids that had his blood pressure rocketing. He knew each of his cohort of teenage historians by name and knew exactly what they should achieve in their GCSEs, but was worried that they might not live up to their potential.

And, although he wouldn’t admit it, as the head of humanities at a high-performing secondary, his own position was at stake too. Every single year.

This anecdote illustrates much of what is wrong with our education system and its fundamental, profound, overwhelming addiction to cliff-edge exams. It often resembles a ravaged drug addict, only the narcotics are high-stakes tests.

This dependency is not some teenage experimentation. We first dabbled back in the time of the Victorians, when, mimicking the Confucian system in Imperial China, exams were adopted to regulate entry into the civil service in a bid to move towards meritocracy.

That first hit was enough; we were hooked. But it was in the late 20th century that our usage became far more serious: out went the idea that exams were a proxy for what people knew at a certain time. Exam results became the be-all and end-all thanks to league tables and accountability measures.

Just as addicts talk about seeing their bodies as little more than receptacles for drugs, the education system is in danger of seeing itself as nothing more than the exams it feeds off. Headteachers are fired on the basis of one poor set of results. Pupils, teachers and departments have targets. Whether or not it is prepared to admit it, Ofsted is similarly obsessed, using the numbers as a crutch to justify much of what it does. Politicians and journalists, too. It’s systemic. But can anything be done?

Rod Bristow, president of the Pearson UK exam board, put his head above the parapet in last week’s TES, suggesting that we should end this vicious circle. He admitted that the exam system – of which his organisation is a central pillar – is being badly abused. He was right.

And here’s the weird bit: a growing body of individuals and organisations agrees. When you find the CBI and the NUT on the same page as the likes of Pearson, all arguing that our exam dependency has got out of hand, you can be confident that you’re on to something.

The only people who don’t seem to agree are the politicians in the Department for Education. And even they seem to be coming round. As Bristow pointed out last week, Progress 8, the accountability measure that will replace five A*-C for secondaries from 2016, is something of an admission that cold, hard results are not enough.

But for Bristow, for the CBI’s John Cridland, for countless educationalists, teachers, parents and pupils, it doesn’t go anything like far enough. Why can’t we develop some kind of system that measures – and celebrates – rounded, developed and happy pupils, they ask.

Sadly, the real explanation is a simple one: overcoming any addiction is very, very hard. Too hard, certainly, for the politicians. But really very difficult for the rest of us, too.

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