For the second year in a row, British schoolchildren (and many others around the world) will not be sitting exams. Many educators, like me, know that most pupils are being failed by a system that rewards memory and cramming rather than real learning, and we hope that post-Covid there will be fewer or no exams.
Exams are the most dated and backward way to assess a pupil. They do not prepare our children for the real world in 2021 – and it is time we moved on.
When the first schools were established in the Victorian era, pupils would be assessed through a verbal, answer and response format between master and student. It was personal, and although limited in scope, it allowed it to be tailored to each child.
As the middle class swelled during the industrial revolution, children flooded into newly built schools. The only way to assess them efficiently was to force students to write down the responses they would have said out loud.
In other words, our exams system is the result of the failed scaling of a Victorian assessment method.
To redesign our assessments to be more than memory tests (ie. exams), we should start by asking ourselves exactly what assessments are for. They should be a way to understand the development stage of our pupils, and encourage self-learning.
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They should also provide a helpful feedback loop for teachers, helping them improve their lessons for next time (for example, if most of a class struggles with a particular subject area).
Most importantly, they must prepare children for the kind of ‘assessments’ that await them throughout their lives and careers.
Exams do none of the above. What they do serve as is a tool for both school boards and governments to quantify pupils’ and schools’ success (or failure), and divvy up life chances and funding accordingly. Exams should work for pupils, not bureaucrats.
The useful bits of exams can be preserved in a new, more holistic assessment method.
We can improve meta-cognition, create desire for higher achievements, and strengthen organisation and recall ability without sitting stressed, sleep-deprived children in a cold hall in silence for two hours.
New assessment methods should follow the science. Research has shown that learning consistently over a long period of time is much better than the one-off, “binge-learning” sessions that exams incentivise. It also sadly affects the way teachers teach, because they have to keep exams front and centre, especially in later school years.
Those exams may be easy to manage administratively, but have a huge psychological cost on children that ultimately harms their learning. A survey found that 76 per cent of primary teachers and 94 per cent of secondary teachers agreed that pupils suffered stress-related conditions during exam periods.
That stress reduces the individual’s ability to recall facts. In other words, exams are testing children for their stress-response, not their learning.
That stress response is likely to be better for wealthier children who have more family and social support and stability – and tutors. One study found that students from a disadvantaged background are almost twice as likely to fail their GCSEs. There are many reasons for that, but one of the causes is that exams are easier if you’re privileged.
Most careers require the application of knowledge to real-world decision-making, a synthesis of cross-topic understanding, and higher-order problem solving.
Even lawyers, politicians and bankers don’t sit in a room, trying to recall niche facts without reference materials. In fact it is the most demanding careers that most depend on the soft skills that exams ignore.
Instead of a Victorian exam system, monthly mini assessments would prepare children for a real world that demands quick thinking and interdisciplinary working, without the artificial time pressure.
For example, tasking pupils with developing a business pitch over the course of a day, with the final presentation at the end would test their maths, writing, legal and financial knowledge, as well as their ability to manage time and operate under pressure. It would also measure their interpersonal skills – something that every employer wants to know about, but exams ignore.
This would mean trusting children to want to learn, trusting teachers to assess them flexibly and fairly, and giving up some of the Politburo-style command and control that the current system gives the government.
There is no question that something needs to change: Only 43.2 per cent of English pupils got a strong pass in GCSE English and maths in the 2018 to 2019 school year. You can either believe that most of our children are stupid, most of our teachers are incompetent, or that the way we assess them is not fit for purpose.
I choose the latter.
Leon Hady is a former headteacher and founder of Guide Education.