If ‘exams’ are the answer, what is the question?

TL:DR – The concept of exams in the 21st Century is now up for debate following the A-level results shambles. And Williamson is still in post. 

This stems from Sonia Sodha’s column in The Guardian, where the headline (which is never written by the columnists in newspapers) states The fake meritocracy of A-level grades is rotten anyway – universities don’t need them.

For those institutions that interview all of the candidates that they give offers to, the argument is that they have enough information about those they have given offers to, to know whether they will thrive at the institution or not, so why do they need to wait for exam results? This was one of the reasons Worcester College, Oxford gave when it was the first to state that they would honour places for all those given conditional offers irrespective of A-level results in 2020. What was significant was the institution telling the Education Secretary it did not trust the assurances given by the Prime Minister over the robustness of the system of grading, put in place due to the cancellation of exams on the back of the Corona Virus pandemic response.

Why do we need so many exams?

Something I’ve come back to again and again due to having spent every summer between 1992-2002 having exams of one sort or another that involved sitting at a desk in silence with dozens/hundreds of others and writing lots in a short space of time. What was it all for? Did the economy and society really benefit from all of us writing all those scripts and the huge amount of time, effort and resources spent marking and assessing us?

The half-life of qualifications

About halfway through my first degree, one of the lecturers told us that degrees only have a short half-life, and that after a few years like with GCSEs, they can become meaningless. It has been nearly two decades since I graduated with a 2:1 (hons) degree in Economics with Development Studies. I couldn’t tell you what the honours bit meant then, and still couldn’t tell you now. By that time the concept of taking written exams in the summer was automatic that I almost went through the whole thing in a zombified state. I had only started taking medication for my mental health issues at the start of the spring term of my final year. It was only after the banking crisis that the shortcomings in the content of my degree started making the mainstream media.

Other, better methods of assessment that are not all or nothing

The most comprehensive assessment I’ve ever been subject to by complete strangers – and one that was probably the most accurate in that snapshot in time, was when I undertook the day-long Fast Stream Assessment Centre in November 2006. I blogged about it here.

For me, an adaption of that method of assessment should be explored for the educational world – one that enables a conversation between a high calibre assessor and the student based on an extended piece of work that the student has worked on, as well as their own life experiences. One of the things I found in the interview in the day-long set of assessments with the Fast Stream was how the assessor had really done their research on me and was able to bring out the best in me in the case studies I had written about in my application. This is different to being asked questions about a text someone else has written that you are then asked to comment on. (Which was one of the other activities in the assessment centre).

Essentially in such assessments you’d be asking students to produce an extended project on something that they are passionate about, and then be prepared to answer questions from an outside assessor on that project. Amongst other things that would help deal with copying and pasting from the internet, because the students would have to then demonstrate familiarity with what they had put in their projects. It would become obvious very quickly if they were unfamiliar with this or if someone else had produced the written work.

Is it a numbers game? Should the timetables be rigid or more flexible?

I remember during my A-level exams writing in my then manuscript diaries that I needed more time to prepare and learn, and also that I needed more time with some of the people I was with. I remember thinking at the time that three years in further education, starting aged 16 and on a much larger site with green open spaces would have been far better for me, and I would have gotten far more out of it (and also be far more willing to give back to the institution too). But there was no flexibility in the system and furthermore, the educational establishment at the time very much frowned upon the concept of resitting or deferring years. Which from a public policy design perspective makes me ask the question: Who is your system designed to serve? The students & young people, or the institutions?

‘Children/students should be taught about things that will help them in the real world!’

How many times have we read or heard similar sentiment?

The case of BTEC students mysteriously ignored in yesterday’s climbdown by the Education Secretary – confirmed as an oversight by the Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee Mr Halfon, shows what to me is an artificial split between academic and vocational.

I’m trying to think of anything that I was taught in my GCSEs in the mid-1990s that was of any use to me in the real world…and nope…not really coming up with much. So why do some employers insist on people listing all of their GCSEs on application forms irrespective of the age of the applicants?

Moving from a model where most people take most of their exams in life in there teens/early 20s, to one where assessments of skills takes place over lifetimes and evolves as society and technology evolves.

Take driving tests. That’s a classic case for requiring drivers to take and re-take their driving tests on a more regular basis than the arrangements at present. In a ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg’ scenario, the infrastructure and institutional arrangements to make motoring safe for drivers, passengers, and the public only came into being long after the motor car was invented. In the mid 1930s the new national standard road signs were particularly unpopular with opinionated men who wrote in regularly to the Cambridge Daily News – as satirised by Ronald Searle in 1936.

360919 Ronald Searle vegetable show Cartoon

Above – Ronald Searle in the CDN from the Cambridgeshire Collection, 19 Sept 1936. Note the police and the road signs in the bottom row.

What would a move to lifelong learning and assessments mean?

This comes back to ‘what are exams for?’ – Who needs to know what, when, and why? For employers this might include being able to verify that an applicant has more than the minimum of skills in reading, writing, and numeracy in order to function in a place of employment. Yet as we have seen, we’ve moved to a world where some employers have a requirement for applicants to have a degree even though the post they are advertising for does not actually require the skills or intellect one develops during higher education. It’s just a means to reduce the number of applicants – all too often risking turning away candidates that might be the most suitable and competent for the post. (I’ve not yet seen adverts that state: “If you have a degree you are over-qualified for this post!”)

Part of that shift would have to be institutional and involve the built environment – what would colleges designed primarily for mature students look and be like? How similar/different would they be to existing schools, colleges and universities? What facilities would they need? Are we talking about big sixties-style tower blocks in inner city neighbourhoods or the lavish grand buildings and playing fields of the affluent public schools?

‘The Adult School I’d like”

This reminds me of the competition run by The Guardian in 2001 that was far more popular than they expected. It was called The School I’d Like and invited children to design their own schools. The results were incredible. They repeated the exercise in 2011. I hope they repeat it in 2021, mindful of the economic, social, and technological changes that have taken place since 2001.

Studying to work, or studying to live?

Given the various calls for Universal Basic Income, will we be moving away from the 9-5 norm? Should there be an expectation – a legal duty even, that staff can have say half a day a week doing learning and education on an accredited course or at an accredited institution? (And be paid for it?) I put this to Ben Page of Ipsos Mori.

He agreed.

Either way, ministers will need to respond to the call by the Children’s Commissioner for England on the exam system.

“In England, a child’s attainment and future prospects are determined almost entirely by exams taken at just two points in their education. This is an inherently fragile system that is easily thrown into turmoil. It has also created considerable anxiety for children and young people ever since their exams were cancelled. Once the immediate crisis is over, the government should take a long, hard look at the nation’s exam system and whether it does right by children.” The Children’s Commissioner, 13 Aug 2020.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: