Do we really need those exam boards?

18th September 1998 at 01:00
Why is it that adults are apparently so critical of the younger generation? Every summer, when the school exam results are published, many inches of newsprint and hours of broadcasting time, are devoted to challenging what 16 and 18-year-olds have achieved.

If results show an improvement, the pundits state unequivocally that "standards have fallen" and that the demands of the current exams at GCE A-level, at GCSE level and, most recently at GNVQ advanced and intermediate levels, are not comparable with those of previous years. When students perform less well, they blame the teachers! On the contrary, I believe that young people and their teachers have a right to be applauded for inching their way towards achieving the nation's targets.

This need to undervalue the achievements of teachers is yet a further example of the guerrilla-style "sniping" which rages between the media and teachers. The Government, the CBI and the world of business are crying out for better-educated young people to enter the labour market. The young look on as their learning achievements are caught in this cross-fire. How do they assess this model of the adult world which refuses to acknowledge the reality of their achievements? Is it because the syllabuses and assessment procedures are different in form, style and content from those of the past?

The latest anxieties focus on the less able 50 per cent of the student population. The TES of August 28 reported: "Alarm as failure rate expands" - while acknowledging record levels of those achieving the top grades A*-C and the notable increase of those getting A*.

Is the real answer that society, government and business are very confused as to what the purpose of school examinations really is? Do they represent a gateway to further and higher education or a tool for employers to select for appropriate recruitment by measuring the intellectual competence of a generation of young people? Or are they in reality a stratagem for measuring teachers and their productivity levels?

Society and business need to know whether the young are able to access information and knowledge; whether they know how to evaluate that information and knowledge and whether they know how to use them purposefully, creatively and constructively. The GNVQ system represents a type of assessment which attempts to address these needs.

Yet society remains mistrustful of the GNVQ because it cannot easily match these new qualifications against the old GCE O-level and A-level systems. The new is marketed through the gold standard of the old. Would it be reasonable to compare the performance of a 1998 two-litre motor car with that of a 1950 two-litre motor car? Industry would never market present products in measures of the past. I wonder whether the current exam system is more a means for encouraging teachers to think in terms of measurable outcomes and the attainment of targets, than one for assessing the intellectual quality of young people.

The TES reports of August 28 were written in negative terms about young people and their involvement in the exam system, both at 16 and 18. And yet, these exam systems cost the public purse huge sums of money. The current annual bill paid to the exam boards for Banbury School is around Pounds 65,000.

In value-for-money terms, given the lack of faith in what they represent, and of clarity as to their purpose - is this a fruitful and value-adding element in education spending? Do the three enormous new exam conglomerates have a vested interest in persuading everyone of the essential nature of their products, so as to remain in business? Some might regard them as parasites on the education world - only in existence because there are teachers working with young people in places called schools.

Anita Higham is principal of Banbury School

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