We let our children fail without fear

20th May 2005 at 01:00
Cecilia doesn't come to stay any more. It is three years since the last of her six annual visits to England from Madrid, but, as the exam period ticks round, she is remembered. Teachers remember her enthusiasm for work; my family remembers her cheerfully tolerating theatres, concerts and - most daunting of all - visits to Granny and Grandpa. I remember her, oddly enough, for her observations about exams.

This is a hot topic at any time. Exams proliferate, and the bigger the exams industry becomes, the more we seem to question their validity. Most years at least one major doubt is expressed: English Sats marking, AS-level difficulty, the marks needed for an "A" in maths. And these scandals are only the ones that come to light. We all know horrendous stories that could be told if we had the energy, or if we thought it would make any difference to anything.

And this is why I remember Cecilia. Each year she sends a card saying how much she misses her visits. Well, things move, yet Cecilia's perennial question remains in my mind. From the first time she asked it, on the way to school, I remember the challenge it posed: "What happens when English schoolchildren fail exams?"

The easy answer was: "Nothing." The more difficult was an answer to her incredulous follow-up: "Why?" My reply was always vague. I would explain that in English schools we have annual exams; that the results of some are published to produce "league tables"; that, finally, we have GCSEs, after which students go on to further studies, or work, or a combination.

Cecilia's astonishment would increase exponentially. She compared it with the driving test. If you do not pass, you cannot drive. You might complain about your examiner, the car, the pedestrians, the traffic, or hire a different instructor. But you are not allowed to drive a car on your own.

Failing means "no access to the next stage because you have failed to meet the required standard". She was used to exams where, if you fail, you are not allowed to go on to the next educational stage.

Who does testing really affect? Anyone involved with the everyday realities of teaching must empathise with the youngsters who are let down by each year's debacle, but it is still hard not to think "welcome to the club".

After all, if any group of people knows the reality of the effects that testing has had in the UK, it is teachers. Many of those who leave the profession early point to assessment and testing as a major cause. We are the ones who are judged by the exam, not the children who take them. I don't mind the annual debrief, but it only adds insult to injury that the people who sit the tests just move up a year, pass or fail.

Anyway, I then had a question for Cecilia: "What happens if Spanish children fail exams?"

"If you pass, you go on holiday. If you narrowly fail, you go to school for extra lessons and holiday homework. If you fail badly, you take the whole year over again." Needless to say, there aren't many in the last category.

Few welcome the ignominy of being in a class with younger students, standing out as "failures". So the classroom is a more focused place throughout the year, because while some children may not mind failing, they do mind extra years at school.

In England, children also fail their exams, but we do not confront them with the significance of that failure. We blame someone, but it is the schools and, especially, the teachers, not the students. "Shurely shome mishtake!" as someone once said.

Colin Padgett

Colin Padgett is a head of English in an Essex comprehensive

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