The examination system in this country is in a complete mess and has been undermined by Government obsession with target-setting and league tables. Dr Martin Stephen, High Master of St Paul's School explains.
No-one really noticed when the Titanic hit the iceberg. There was a gentle judder, but the ship sailed on for a while at least. We are in the same situation with regard to our national exams, with the system approaching meltdown whilst the captains of the ship sternly tell everyone not to panic. The evidence for such a sweeping assertion? Just look at our 16+ examination structure, increasingly making us a laughing stock in the industrialised world. We have no less than four separate examinations competing for the favours of our 16+ cohort - A Level, the International Baccalaureate, the Pre-U examinations and the dreadful new Government Diplomas. These four competing systems divert attention away from the reform of what should be our national examination, A Level, and dilute the effort we can put into producing a viable, single and unified system at a time when the economic crisis will mean less and less resources available for education. It is difficult to imagine a greater mess. A new A* grade has been introduced on the basis of the rather novel idea that you can invent a new grade without having to invent any new material on which to award it: the content of A Level stays the same. Ivy League universities are in despair at A Levels' inability to identify the top 15% of candidates, leading to a burgeoning number of so-called aptitude tests, pioneered by Oxford and Cambridge but now spreading like a virus. We have reinvented the fourth term Oxbridge examination. Schools are deserting to the IB, which is actually quite a flawed examination, or seeking to develop with limited resources and no Government backing the Pre-U examination. Meanwhile the Government, as if enough people were not jumping ship, invent the new Diploma, an all-singing, all-dancing examination which will by some new magic bridge the gap between the academic and the vocational pathway. Maintained schools, meanwhile, have to be ordered not to take the IB and ordered to take the new Diplomas, which are about as popular as a demolition course in the middle of the Blitz.
Things are not much better at GCSE level. The examination is not rigorous enough for those aspiring to places at top universities, but it still too difficult for roughly half the school populace to gain a creditable grade. I was howled down recently for criticising the new GCSE science specifications, and criticised in public by Government ministers and the head of a leading teaching union. My criticisms were 'insulting'. A fortnight later Ofqual, the new and supposedly independent Government agency overseeing qualifications, savaged the new Science specifications, and the same Ministers were positively falling over themselves to agree and promise firm action. Apparently we don't shoot the messenger unless he comes from an independent school, in which case it's OK. Independent schools are flocking to the IGCSE examination, to the anger of the Government whose response is to refuse funding for state schools to do, and refuse to recognise it for league table purposes. How have we come to be in this sorry mess?
The first step was to take control of examinations away from their end-users, universities and employers. Does anyone remember the days when examination boards carried the name of universities? It was not a perfect system, but it did mean that academic qualifications were validated by academics. Then in one of the most unheralded takeovers of all time, more and more power over our examinations was taken by Government, until the pigs started to walk on two legs and we found ourselves with QCA, a wholly-owned Government subsidiary with totalitarian powers over every exam. and qualification in the UK. At more or less the same time, exams became commercial entities, needing to compete in the market place and make a profit. The market may be a fine thing for vegetables, but it is less good for qualifications. Examiners started to come back from meetings and report that talk of standards had been replaced by talk of the need to increase market share. Market share is not compatible with maintaining standards. Schools faced with the tyranny of league tables are not attracted by exams that are harder than others, and the effect of the market is to drive down standards. Followers of conspiracy theory also worry that dumbing-down is the result of a chronic shortage of teachers with degrees in their subject. If you cannot get the teachers who will raise the standard of the pupils, an alternative is to lower the standard. It is also difficult not to see a link with politics in a wider sense. How good is it for a Government to announce standards are rising in its term of office? How disastrous is it if the reverse is true?
The Government obsession with target-setting and league tables has also done serious damage to the examination system. It has placed huge pressure on schools to opt for 'soft' subjects, not only because these are easier to get teachers for but because they are easier full stop, and boost a school's points score. It is not just government who are attracted to easier exams, because 'better' grades allow them to crow about how well they have done. Schools have to be attracted to them as well, because higher or better grades reflect well on them.
A largely un-noticed negative influence on exams has been the scarcity of decent markers. For years exam. marking has been to education what the sweat shop has been to the manufacture of clothing, an employment of last resort. This and the expense of marking have lead to a rise in the multiple choice and tick-box style of marking, and pressure to adopt on-line systems. Neither approach encourages rigour, and neither has the capacity to reward true creativity or original thinking.
Another factor contributing to our present deeply unsatisfactory situation is the extraordinary confusion in Government thinking between the teaching of knowledge and the teaching of skills. They are two separate things, and have been since time immemorial. The division is summed up by the saying that those who understand how something works will always have a job, but their boss will always be the person who understands why it works. Our present examination system seems set on treating knowledge and skills as the same thing, and that is a recipe for sterility.
Our present system is also another victim of the Government addiction to initiatives. It responds to a crisis by setting new targets and launching a new initiative. Initiatives do not spring out of a coherent overall philosophy of education. They are a knee jerk response to a crisis or a good cause, and are useful because they generate a lot of noise and make it seem as if someone is doing something. They also have the advantage that if they fail, schools, teachers or parents can be blamed - anyone, in fact, except the Government itself. The new Diplomas are an initiative, as was the dumbing-down of the specifications (syllabus in old-speak) for the new GCSE Science papers. Initiatives are bolt-ons, as if module after module was being added to an ancient Soyuz space vehicle. W. B. Yeats' vision of Armageddon was summed up by the image 'the centre will not hold'. Initiatives are like para-medics. They give some instant relief, but are no substitute for the surgeon and a long-term solution.
One thing has also played in to the hands of Government is persuading people to keep quiet about declining standards in exams. Whoever else's fault it might be, it is certainly not the fault of the young people who have no choice other than to sit our national exams if those exams are no longer as rigorous as they need to be. Yet to criticise those exams is potentially to undermine the achievement of young people and appear to denigrate it. Teachers do not come in to teaching to lower the self-esteem of young people, and fear of doing just that has in effect gagged many people from saying what they think.
There are a number of possible answers to these problems, but they will require real political courage to introduce. A 15 year-old in my school was discussing many of the above issues with me in a History lesson. 'What you're really saying,' he said, 'is that if we're to have a credible exam. system we're going to have to recognise that some people will fail.' Er... yes, really. But we could soften both the blow and the numbers by adopting a number of measures, the first one being to replace the one size fits all GCSE with a series of qualifications that fit horses to courses. We need a School Leaving certificate that guarantees every pupil leaving school has reached minimum standards of literacy and numeracy, hopefully around the age of 14. For those wishing to pursue the knowledge route there needs to be one set of qualifications, another for those pursuing skills, with the ability to mix and match if so desired, until the age of 16. After that we need a tiered Diploma, along the lines set out bv the Tomlinson Report. Most of all, we need to focus on a single, coherent and national pattern of examinations that will stop the present profligate expenditure on more and more different and competing exams. That pattern should be controlled by universities and by employers, not government. Examiners should be distanced from the need to be elected every five years or less. While we are at it, we need to create a new body to regulate and represent those who mark examinations, and give a recognised standing and career path to graduate teachers who undertake this crucial task.