You didn’t fail your exams, exams failed you

The UK government has just announced a series of measures to make GCSEs and A-levels easier next year, as a result of teaching lost due to COVID. These include more generous grading, advance notice of topics to aid revision, and the option of sitting exams in July if they are missed for illness or self-isolating. Of course, if all else fails, teacher assessed grades like those offered this year will still be an option. So, why are we even having these exams in the first place?

I have long argued that our exam culture, leaving all assessment to a handful of tests, is an unrealistic assessment of ability. But even for those who do perform well under exam conditions, what do these tests actually prove? I am yet to find even one real-world example in which an employer would expect their workers to sit in complete silence for two hours, and deposit everything they had learnt at their job on a piece of paper. Fail, and you’re fired.

Why do we put so much weight on these tests then? To understand this, we have to ask what the purpose of education is. The answer you get will vary widely based on who you ask but, in the UK, the most common answer is likely to be ‘to get a job’. Unfortunate really, as this is an incredibly limited perspective on how education can benefit society, and is a mindset which I think directly stems from our exam obsession.

It isn’t universal either. I’ve talked to friends from the US, to Germany, to Norway. None of these countries put as much weight on exams as the UK. This competition of knowledge retention and dumping is so unproductive, and an upsetting waste of many students’ potential. It leads to otherwise passionate students learning to hate education. I can only imagine what this is like for teachers, forced to repeat an outdated curriculum year after year, assessed only on the resulting grades.

So what then, do I propose as an alternative? Well, I should start by saying I have no problem with low-pressure exams being used by teachers throughout learning to assess students’ understanding. I also don’t take issue with controlled assessment, that is, coursework style assessment taken over a longer period of time in a controlled environment, with or without internet and textbook access.

What I do have a problem with, is the way our obsession with final exams has led to an education system which severely impacts student mental health. Which, overwhelmingly, benefits a specific type of student and undervalues everyone else, which destroys creativity and critical thinking. Education should encourage students to explore their interests and present their understanding and opinions in a variety of ways. It should develop real-world skills, across a wide range of subjects.

Would you rather leave school with a portfolio of work showing a range of skills and interests, or a piece of paper with some grades on it? Which of those better represents an actual person? I know I don’t need to answer that. The pandemic has exposed the flaws in our education system, and given us an opportunity to fix it. We are more than letters on paper and we deserve better than this.


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Henry Webb

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November 2021
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