School examinations have been plastered all over the front pages this week, in the wake of the Daily Telegraph expos’ of some of the comments made by examiners – and chief examiners – on courses for teachers of their subject. Course leaders have been filmed giving strong hints about the content of next summer’s papers, and instructing teachers in how to restrict the amount that they teach, in order to make it simpler for their pupils to pass the final exam. One examiner was filmed boasting about how easy the specifications (ie syllabus) were – hardly an endorsement for a world class exam system.
And this is the problem. I have gone on the record in the past with my belief that our national exams system has been discredited for a time. It has grown into an administrative nightmare, taking up vast swathes of time and energy in school in preparing for the exams, sitting the papers and following up the results. This past summer’s (unfortunately now familiar) experience of impossible questions and poor marking is simply compounded by this most recent insight into how teachers are being lined up to cheat the system. The art has become how to pass the exam, not how to learn a subject and deepen understanding.
The fact that exam boards are allowed to charge for these courses is iniquitous, and lays the way wide open for abuse – any sensible person could work this out. Exam boards also publish text books and charge considerable amounts for exams, re-sits and re-marks; it is therefore in their commercial interest to attract ‘customers’ and to grow and prolong the entire process. At the heart of their activity may be a noble sense of aiming to provide a ‘gold standard’ against which our young people can be measured in the wider world, but the reality has drifted far, far from this ideal. Its credibility could not be lower at present. In independent schools we have known this for a time and we work to circumvent the inequities of the system, but it is becoming harder and harder to do this, and more and more frustrating.
The people who suffer from this, of course, are our young people – the students in our schools. They are the ones who will be entering the workplace or the world of higher education with an education which has been restricted in order to help them to gain a qualification which employers and universities increasingly feel is not worth the paper it is written on. This is not their fault – it is our fault for not sorting it out. The time has come to overhaul the system entirely. Our teenagers are over tested, poorly supported by the system and criminally under-prepared as a result. At the very least let us set up a Royal Commission, work out what is failing with the system and start making a difference. We cannot begin soon enough.