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Exams fiasco: back to the drawing board?

“Ask me my three main priorities for government, and I tell you: education, education and education”, Tony Blair famously declared in 1996. Of course, he was right, even if he didn’t stay true to his word. Access to a good education is indeed the silver bullet for many young people’s problems across the globe. It’s that simple. Trouble is, politicians are like Bake Off contestants: their success is measured purely and solely on the outcome of the final product and the tangible always trumps the intangible. Let’s put it this way. Ask me three ways to measure success in education policy and I tell you: exams, exams and exams. 

It is certainly valid to say that we have some of the best universities in the world here in the UK. The same, however, cannot be said for our educational system. At least not in England. There, from the age of 13, students are encouraged to start narrowing down their prospects, eliminating subjects they ‘dislike’. At 16, you’re forced to pick three or four subjects to focus on, limiting the possibility of specialising in anything else. These are decisions that will decide the course of our careers and they’re taken at the most mentally unstable and immature stage of our lives. But that’s not even the worst part: two years of work culminates over the course of just one three-hour exam. 

Not surprisingly, therefore, England’s extremely streamlined education system is an outlier. To the Spanish or the French, for instance, the idea of being assessed on two years’ work over the course of just a few hours would seem crazy. Even in Scotland, after completing National 5s (equivalent to GCSEs), students typically take four or five subjects to study at higher level and will never go more than a year without being assessed. Of course, this framework resembled the English AS/A2 system, which the Conservatives have now scrapped. 

Recently, the educational divide between England and Scotland has been accentuated with the cancelling of Scottish National 5s in 2021, versus the UK government saying England’s exams will go ahead, just with a three-week delay. Is three weeks enough to catch up from four months of lost teaching time? I doubt it. Is having a one-size-fits-all assessment fair given the outrageous levels of disparity in online teaching quality between state and private schools? Hell no. But let’s not get carried away: cancelling exams altogether isn’t and never has been the right answer either. 

Never let a good crisis go to waste, the saying goes. The inability of students being assessed this year (and some next year) must be a watershed moment. We must take a long and hard look at the way children’s abilities are put to the test. The Scottish system provides a more spread-out and balanced way than the English, as do many other European countries, but we must go further: The International Baccalaureate (IB) is ground-breaking and should be a source of inspiration to us all. The belief that academic brilliance can’t be solely assessed on how fast you write, or how many facts you can cram into your head. Investigations, performances, more weight on coursework, presentations: these are all ways of assessing that will reward not just the children with photographic memories, but the most articulate, the most hard-working and the most talented. They will also provide every child with skills such as public speaking, communication and rhetoric, and self-discipline which are all essential for survival in this cruel world. 

Investment in education is investment in the future. Policymakers must ask themselves: do we want to create a generation of clones that can barely think for themselves or are we going to create a generation of leaders that reach for the stars. After all, these are the people that will be running the world not so long from now. 

Image: Wellington Academy via Flickr