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Return of the Inquisition?

Think the exam system is torture? Think again. Education reformers want pupils to be subjected to real torment. They want a session with the Spanish Inquisition to replace the traditional written test.

An exam would no longer mean neatly regimented rows of children hunched over their papers, scribbling furiously.

Picture instead a pupil walking on to a stage. He is confronted by three assessors dressed in 17th century costume and announcing themselves as the Spanish Inquisition.

The chief inquisitor thrusts an envelope into the candidate's hands. Inside it, there are instructions informing him that he is Galileo and he must answer a few questions.

This is no Monty Python sketch. This is a public challenge performance, the proposal of education revolutionary Christopher Ormell, and quite possibly the exam format of the future.

The candidate is forced to draw on all his creative, social and problem solving skills, as well as his factual knowledge, if he is to acquit himself convincingly.

"A challenge presentation is a form of testing using methods of live questioning and simulation in front of an audience of interested parties, peers, parents and siblings," said Mr Ormell.

He is a member of the Philosophical and Educational Renewal movement, which seeks to promote intellectual vigour in education, and a retired lecturer in education studies.

Mr Ormell believes schools have been hijacked by anti-intellectuals who are trying to manage them as though they were businesses, making them accountable through exams and league tables.

He suggests the real aims of education are creativity, team spirit, persistence, reliability, critical acumen, imagination, empathy, problem-solving ability, and social and thinking skills. And he argues that the tradition of cramming and sitting exams is not the best way to assess pupil progress.

"Do high marks obtained in this way tell us that a student has been 'well educated'? Almost no one thinks this. So does the publication of its examination results give a satisfactory account of the work of a school? Very few, among those who have thought about this issue, believe this.

"We need to devise new vehicles of accountability which will deliver results closer to the real aims of education."

Mr Ormell's answer is the performance challenge, which he says is similar to a viva for a doctoral thesis. He argues it is a better test of a pupil's progress than any multiple-choice paper or essay question.

"Actual, live performances carry much more human meaning, smack much more of reality than exam certificates, which everyone knows are crammable," he said.

He concedes, though, that public performance challenges are somewhat radical and a long way down the line.

"Some New Vehicles for Accountability in Education" published in PER Review No 2. PO Box 16916, London SE3 7WS


A candidate has elected to be tested on her charismatic qualities and knowledge of American history.

Interrogator So, Geronimo. Tell me something about yourself.

Candidate I am a fearsome warrior who led the last band of free Apache on raids in Arizona, Texas and Mexico at the end of the 19th century.

Interrogator How did it feel, when you were hiding out?

Candidate Exciting, but sort of frightening too.

Interrogator Tell me. What happened exactly, that time you ran into General Custer?

Candidate: I didn't. We never met. He was busy wiping out the Little Big Horn, being massacred by the valiant Sioux.

Interrogator I'd love to visit Arizona. Can you use the internet to find some tourist attractions?

Candidate (after accessing various websites): You might like to try the Grand Canyon and Old Tucson Studios, where they filmed Little House on the Prairie.

Candidate Look, a man has just arrived (enter actor) who says he is the only survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn.

I want you to find out if he's telling the truth.

Candidate (converses with the survivor and discovers he must be a hoaxer because he claims to have been tomahawked in the arm by Cochise when the candidate knows full well that Cochise was not at Custer's Last Stand.) Assessment: The candidate has been tested on communication and social skills, problem-solving, empathy and imagination. She has also demonstrated some knowlege of native American history.

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