There must be a way to escape this exams labyrinth

9th July 2010 at 01:00

It's turning out to be a helluva summer in the Pope household. Number One daughter has been doing A-levels, while number Two grappled with GCSEs. Ask for help with the washing-up and it's a quick flounce to the bedroom to return to revision; ask how the exam went, and it's a glare with the killing power of Margaret Thatcher's handbag. I'm planning on being at the North Pole on results day. Alone.

What's more, One is in Year 12 only taking AS-levels, with the worst yet to come. The younger is Year 10, and taking more GCSE modules this year than she will face in the summer of Year 11. She is still only 14.

Which crazy headteacher has decided that kids of that age should spend their time incarcerated with shelfloads of revision guides instead of enjoying the short-lived freedom of being young? Since they both go to my school, I guess the answer is me.

Nothing promotes reflection better than being your own client. There are very good reasons behind breaking subjects into modules: exams are spread over a course so that the stress at the end is reduced; you do not have to remember two years later the work that you did at the beginning of the course; and students who flop in early modules can up their game after an early encounter with realism, and those who underperform because they were worried about their budgie's tonsillitis get another chance.

It's all so jolly sensible. People do not suddenly take Grade 8 ukelele, but gradually work through a sequence of exams, retaking if they fail. Nobody worries if you have to retake a driving test several times. Only in school exams does the law of unintended consequences break out like acne.

We are an average size secondary, with around 200 in a year group. In this summer's round of exams, 115 out of 183 candidates re-sat a maths module; 62 out of 76 are re-sitting history.

We know, and so do the students, that a single mark can mean the difference between champagne and henbane. Three more marks on a module might gain you a higher grade on the overall exam, so why take the chance? Re-sit! What is even more debilitating about this culture is the growing feeling that you do not have to try too hard with early modules. Didn't do very well? Re-sit!

So students find themselves always about to take one exam or another, with no time for the important stuff like choirs, rugby and growing up. Meanwhile, schools find that the exam budget is the only one allowed to grow unchecked. We spend #163;115,000 on exam fees in a year, #163;20,000 on exam officers to run this madhouse enterprise, and another #163;20,000 on invigilators.

In a single morning last month we needed 38 invigilators. It's a wonderful idea to let teachers spend time preparing lessons instead of watching their fingernails grow in an exam hall. It's a super idea to put fragile kids in a room with their personal invigilator, and a mark of a civilised society to let those with a special need have an amanuensis.

Yet how can I find 38 people to come in for just 90 minutes on a Thursday morning? If our staff had not been so understanding and willing to volunteer, I would have been reduced to kidnapping local blue rinses from the bingo hall.

We have to find a way out of this labyrinthine madness. How I love to lean on my Zimmer frame in the staffroom, and watch the youngsters' faces as I tell them we once had 100 per cent coursework in English.

Yes, lad, I tell an incredulous NQT, we just set all sorts of creative tasks and chose the five best at the end. Teachers from other schools moderated a few samples and that was that.

Of course, it had to go. Teachers became so worried about their residuals they did the work for any kids too stupid to download the stuff from the web in the first place.

And lo! Controlled assignments are born. The new English specification allows up to four hours in controlled conditions for each of two assignments. Multiply that through ten subjects, and the next nightmare has arrived.

How do you make sure that students are not facing controlled assignments in more than one subject at any one time? How do you supervise absent students to catch up, and how do you ensure willing students are not disadvantaged if the teacher is failing to control any who are disruptive?

This new Government has already shown its willingness to take a sword to nonsense. Swish! Off with the GTC's head. Swash! Away with the ISA. Come on Mr Gove, the exam dragon awaits you - and here's an idea you might try ...

A colleague once witnessed the assessment technique at a major public school. A master chalked grades on each step of the main oak staircase. He then stood at the top and hurled down a pile of scripts. Each was given the grade of the step where it landed.

A big improvement on what we do now, don't you think?

Roger Pope, Principal, Kingsbridge Community College, Devon.

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