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Thomas Huxley was right when he warned us: ‘Examinations, like fire, make good servants, but poor masters’

GCSEs and A-levels have undue influence over every element of the education system, writes one expert

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Two juxtaposed items, appearing in TES as schools were winding up for Christmas, made for an interesting, if inadvertent, commentary on the asymmetrical relationship between teaching and testing, education and examination.

According to one study, Britain’s schools are among the worst in the world for "teaching to the test". Our 15-year-olds score close to the Pisa average for maths, literacy and problem-solving; but their performance drops as they progress through secondary and tertiary education.

Professor Dorling, the study’s author, says the findings show that this country’s schools focus on short-term knowledge acquisition to help pupils pass tests, dispensing knowledge that is then quickly forgotten. A Cambridge Assessment study in 2012 found much the same – university lecturers consider that too much teaching to the test at A-level is primarily responsible for students’ alleged unpreparedness for higher study.

High-stakes exams appear to figure hugely in the minds and motivations of students. Who knew? Well, Thomas Huxley for a start: almost from the onset of competitive public examinations in England he was warning that "students work to pass, not to know; they do pass, and they don’t know".

A TES news item in late December reported that Ofqual was considering protocols aimed at ensuring that the percentage of candidates achieving top grades becomes more comparable between subjects.

One underlying concern is that the smaller proportion of top grades awarded in some subjects, such as modern foreign languages, has caused a diminution in the number of students opting to take these subjects to A-level and beyond. At issue here is the idea that choice of subject is directly affected by the relative prospects of success in exams (understandable), leading to the conclusion that re-engineering exam grades can materially affect subject choice (probably true, but very worrying in its implications).

Ofqual’s predecessor, the QCA, pointed out the tendency for governments to use the exam system as a cheap policy lever to influence education in schools. But rather than trying to address the fundamental problem of exams’ undue influence, governments and bureaucrats have continued to use the exams lever – amplifying rather than resolving the problem that what we do in schools is greatly determined by the imperatives of the exam system.

Perhaps the term "over-determined" would be more appropriate, given that exams don’t just dominate student subject choice and learning strategies.

The influence of exams through league tables and funding formulae vitally affects schools’ curriculum decisions. Whether to offer three or four A-levels as the core in the new A-level landscape is a decision based on resourcing calculations far more than on a philosophical or evidence-based definition of what constitutes a decent liberal education post-16.

In addition, emphasis on exam results in evaluating teacher performance inevitably influences teachers’ practice, steering them into short-term and instrumentalist interpretations of their role as educators.

Thomas Huxley, prescient and pugnacious, warned over 150 years ago that "examinations, like fire, make good servants, but poor masters".

Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets at @KevinStannard1

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