How do you solve a problem like exam reforms?


exam reforms
Photo by Alberto G (Flickr)

In 2007 I left secondary school with 13 GCSEs at grade C and above and the distinct impression that nobody in government had given any thought to how much pressure the education system placed upon the average 16 year old. Sure, the results made getting into sixth form a walk in the park (not that mine was in the least bit known for turning people away), but five years later and all that stress has amounted to one non-specific line on my CV. In less than twelve months, that line will most likely be gone altogether, overshadowed by the A Level results that prospective employers only glance at, and a piece of paper certifying a degree which cannot guarantee me a job. When the new plans for the English Baccalaureate come into place, I may as well throw my GCSE grades on top of the mounds of O Levels that clog up the waste paper basket of examination reforms.

I don’t really care about that, though – I know our generation will remember GCSEs as the test of our academic mettle long after the next have had to ask how our old system worked.

What really bothers me is the niggling feeling that these changes are more for show than they are for our sake. Until we face up to the fact that an end of term exam only reflects how well you cope with exam conditions, and that a piece of paper can’t portray how capable you actually are, education will continue to be defined by business principles; by success on paper, by only the qualities that can be systematically measured, and in terms of profit and return.

That may inspire your cut-throat competitive achievers, but education is for everybody, and there is an indifference to learning in this country which will need to be addressed in order to inspire true and lasting academic success.

I am just another statistic in previous education plans; a reflection of the system still currently in place. On paper I am Vikki Hutton; 13 GCSEs; 3 A Levels; BA (Hons) Degree, pending.

In person I am somebody who has forgotten about the major themes in The Great Gatsby, who never really cared that much about footpath erosion, who studied French for six years but can’t remember how to get that point across. Are those results to be equally proud of? Because I just so happened to leave them off my CV. And I can’t help but wonder… is Michael Gove doing the same with these reforms? School’s out, and he’s not even addressing why after more than a decade it’s failed to instil in so many of us a passion for actually learning.

We need pass or fail, we need grade boundaries, we need measures of our academic success and intellectual growth – unquestionably. But I have a real problem knowing that education, as a business, needs them more. Sixth forms rely on exam results to show that they can get students into universities; universities need students to fund them. As a result, our entire academic career revolves around the notion that an exam result is a suitable synonym for an education when it is not.

I really wanted to put an MP through three weeks of GCSE exams when I was 16. What an education on modern examinations that would have been.

And whilst I don’t envy the test of Gove’s mettle when it comes to reforming the system, to tackle – as he put it – “years of drift, decline and dumbing down” in our schools, I have to ask: are exams really the answer?

I wonder what he could have learned about education if he’d walked in our shoes more recently? That a memory test does not an academic make, that university doesn’t immediately entitle you to be called educated anymore, and that to everyone else all your hard work is eventually just a line on a CV (and it still can’t promise you the job).

Knowing all that, you kind of wonder: exam reforms… what’s the point? If Gove really wants young people to become better educated adults, I think he needs to learn to read between his lines.

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