Why exam reform is desperately needed

22nd October 2004 at 01:00
The assessment overload suffered by pupils and other severe failings in the UK's education system have driven the calls for changes to the exams.

Many of the biggest problems are highlighted by Mike Tomlinson's report.

"Too many young people leave education lacking basic and personal skills," he writes. "Our vocational provision is too fragmented, the burden of external assessment on learners, teachers and lecturers is too great, and our system is not providing the stretch and challenge needed, particularly for high attainers."

The report states that assessment currently has a "repetitive and burdensome" focus on external tests. GCSEs in particular create "an unnecessary and constraining burden on the system".

A young person doing eight GCSEs and three A-levels will take 42 external examinations and lose about two terms' worth of learning in preparation and examination time.

In addition, pupils must do coursework for every subject in GCSE, which reduces the opportunities for more innovative learning and means they have to demonstrate the same skills on several occasions.

The report states that coursework has become "an exercise rather than a learning experience". The high number of tests is also a severe burden on markers. This year around 57,000 examiners had to mark 7.5 million subject entries.

Another key problem is the UK's poor record in keeping teenagers in school.

Only three-quarters of pupils are still at school at 17, the fifth-worst proportion in the OECD group of developed countries. At least 5 per cent of young people leave without any qualifications at all.

Employers also complain that young people do not have the literacy, numeracy or other skills that they need in the workplace. Just 42 per cent of 16-year-olds gain a C grade or better in both English and maths GCSE.

One way to engage more pupils is to give them more opportunities to try vocational courses.

But the Tomlinson report states that the existing "patchwork" of vocational qualifications is confusing and only one in five young people does a vocational course at advanced level.

"Too many (courses) are of uncertain quality and fail to provide clear progression routes to further learning and employment," it says.

The report argues that employers find the value of other qualifications difficult to understand as well and that the whole assessment system lacks transparency.

Other problems include that the brightest pupils are not stretched by existing exams and that universities are finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between them from their grades. This year 22.4 per cent of A-level entries achieved an A grade.

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