A couple of weeks ago, Michael Gove – Secretary of State for Education – announced a return to the old exam system, ‘O’ level style, where people would study a topic for two years and then take exams at the end. This set me thinking.
About fifteen years ago, when I still worked freelance, I picked up a contract to work in Asda’s IT department. Since I was in need of a job, this was rather good news. There’s just one thing, though, the recruitment agent told me, you have to go and sit English and Maths aptitude tests. Aptitude tests. Exams in disguise.
So I went along to the head office in Leeds, where a nice young lady from HR sat me down and explained that everyone who worked at Asda had to take these basic tests. She was sure, she smiled at me, that I wouldn’t have any problem but it was just part of the process. Furthermore, she said that there was no need to worry. Perhaps she said that to everyone, or perhaps she was just sensitive to my advanced state of agitation. Either way, she explained that she would start each paper by asking me a sample question and, if I got it wrong, then she would say, “Perhaps you’d like to think about that again”.
I can’t remember if we started with the English or the Maths but both times she gave me the warm up question and each time I gave my confident response, followed by her saying, sympathetically, “Perhaps you’d like to think about that again”. Now as it happens, I passed both tests and modesty precludes me from telling you just how well I did on the Maths paper but I hated the entire experience and left the office a perspiring wreck.
Indeed, whenever I am stressed or about to take on something new, it is not uncommon for me to have bad dreams of the type where I arrive at school to find there is a really important exam, requiring lots of revision, which I knew nothing about. I’ve met loads of people who have a similar experience, so it’s clear that the trauma of exams is something that haunts many people.
Sadly, my son appears to have inherited my anxiety; he had a piano exam today and the ability with which he could play his pieces has, over the week, deteriorated from a breezy confidence to a level of syncopation that isn’t indicated in the sheet music.
Quite apart from my intense dislike of exams, though, it strikes me that they are a very ineffective way in which to measure someone’s competence. A teacher is well placed to assess a pupil’s aptitude and how well they are learning a subject, a subject that the teacher will know well. Exam papers on the other hand are sent off to be marked by people of varying degrees of competence and it’s not uncommon for papers to be returned to be remarked and to come back with a completely different result. At the school at which I am a governor, for example, we went through a period where the results from the AS English papers were consistently at odds not only with the pupils’ predicted grades but also their final A level grades, which, amazingly, did reflect their teacher’s predictions.
So, exams as a good method of assessing ability: fail.
One of the aspects of the modern system that Gove objected to was their modular nature. By this method a pupil studying a topic could resit modules until they passed. By way of analogy, let’s look at learning to drive. Let’s say you are excellent at reversing ’round corners and doing three point turns but you are also, unfortunately, a risk to the general public when it comes to roundabouts. The fact that you find managing the indicator whilst turning the wheel a bit of a challenge doesn’t mean you haven’t mastered the other aspects of driving, you just need to focus on the one that causes you problems. (And whilst we’re exploring this analogy, it’s worth making the point that it makes no sense for an instructor to put you forward to take your test before you’re ready but look how many people fail under the exam conditions of the test.) Thus, if I was learning Physics and couldn’t get my head around, say, magnetism, what’s the point of me repeatedly sitting a paper full of other things I know instead of focussing on the one I don’t?
Gove seems to think this modular approach makes it too easy. Perhaps what he really means is that it supports children in large classes in state schools. Or perhaps what I mean is that I have an inherent suspicion of Tory education policy. But I digress.
Finally, I’d like to briefly look at the way the world works or at least the part of it in which I am involved. Recently at work, we undertook a project that involved some technology that we hadn’t used before. Consequently, we did a lot of research and our development involved a bit of trial and error. At no point did I say to anyone “Well, you’ve studied that technology now, so you have to build the application without further reference to the online guides and manuals.” Of course I bloody didn’t. We have access to information pretty much whenever we need it. The modern skill set is based around taking in new information and learning to apply knowledge, not about learning things by rote.
Yes, there are specific instances where information has to be learned and retained – vocabulary for languages springs to mind – but even here, what exactly is being tested? Surely it’s about comprehension and usage? If you have an interest in language, then you will acquire the vocabulary as you go along, certainly by the time you have selected the topics for GCSE or A level.
I think that modern system is great. More assessment by the teacher who is instructing the pupils, opportunities to revisit topics that cause a pupil difficulty and, ultimately, a confidence in the pupil that they are able to learn and apply themselves.
Gove wants to return to a discredited age where one’s success can depend on one’s ability to “cram” information and one’s facility with examinations. The teachers’ role is reduced to preparing people for exams, rather than working with pupils, helping each work in their own way to take in information and to be assessed by the person who best comprehends the pupils’ understanding of a topic.
It’s too late change this now. The next Year 10 intake will return to this “linear” style of education and exam taking. I don’t know of any teachers who believe this is beneficial. Gove, as it happens, has no experience in education apart from what he has acquired since taking his current role two years ago. His Academy programme has yet to deliver the rotten fruit that is its inevitable output, as schools realise their budgets can only be met by reducing staff numbers. Who will benefit from this? Only that minority of pupils at the few state schools lucky enough to have a strong business team but also the majority of pupils at private schools.
I’m not paranoid, I’ve never sold the Socialist Worker, but there is no mistaking the Tory agenda here. Whatever their failings, New Labour opened the door to social mobility in this country and the current government is doing its best to slam it before too many people sneak through.