No bad thing to favour the hard workers

12th September 2008 at 01:00
Warwick Mansell, TES exams specialist and author of `Education by Numbers' (Politico's)

England's exams system undoubtedly does favour the conscientious. Is that a bad thing?

In a sense, Alison Wolf's lament about GCSEs and A-levels is a twist on what is becoming a well-worn complaint.

While these exams reward pupils who can work patiently towards specific learning objectives, accumulate credit in modular exams and complete coursework diligently, they may be less good at incentivising genuinely creative thought.

With most GCSEs moving towards a modular pattern from next year, the era of the unpredictable, all-or-nothing mainstream school exam appears to be nearing an end.

Many students, of course, would welcome this, as will schools, who typically want unpredictability in the exam hall kept to a minimum.

Creativity and spontaneity of thought would also appear to have been downgraded by the rise of very detailed mark schemes and specifications, which lay out in advance for teachers exactly what pupils are to be examined on.

The suggestion, however, that other capabilities than rule-following and diligence might be valued in the outside world and are undervalued by modern exams, seems sound.

The controversial claim, of course, is that these qualities are specifically female.

As a male who got through truly Stakhanovite workloads at school, I would be sceptical about how universally it applies. It may be, however, that more girls than boys exhibit these traits.

One survey last year, for example, showed that girls on average do more homework than boys.

Perhaps the greater value of Professor Wolf's comments is in adding context to the annual exam statistics debate. The figures may show that girls are outperforming boys. But are they uniformly ahead of their male counterparts in all aspects of education, or just better at doing what is now asked of them?

And does data showing that, on average, girls do better than boys in most subjects suggest that boys are somehow being failed by the system, or just choosing not to work hard enough?

As ever, the statistics invite more questions than they provide answers.

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