Melissa Benn: Exams don’t show people at their best. Why persist with them?

Let’s make schools places where a love for learning is stimulated for life

Who would have guessed that the government’s biggest crisis so far in this pandemic year would come not over health or jobs but education? Boris Johnson’s government is still reeling from the A-level and GCSE fiasco and things are not looking much better when it comes to public confidence over the full reopening of schools in September.

But draw back from the endless, empty political rhetoric about ‘levelling up’ and the pandemic has instead revealed an enduring, depressing truth. Our school system directly disadvantages poorer children, whether through the gaping private-state school divide, inequality in university access or our continued failure to establish a robust set of vocational qualifications. 

According to a recent Education Policy Institute report, even before the pandemic hit, the already stark gap between the better-off and those on pupil premium is once again widening.

Our over-reliance on exams does not foster intellectual independence or sound judgement

This summer’s exams fiasco has also led to calls for a fundamental rethink of high-stakes testing from the early years through primary SATS (Standard Assessment Tests) to the new ‘tougher’ GCSEs and A-levels redesigned under Michael Gove. 

Roughly a third of children fail to get a Level 4, the equivalent of a pass, in English and maths at GCSE. With such a relentless focus on testing throughout the school, years, it is no surprise that education has become such a dull and demoralising experience for so many pupils.

According to employers, many young people, even those with good results on paper, are not coming into the workplace with the right kind of skills, be that the ability to communicate clearly, collaborate effectively or think laterally or creatively. Our over-reliance on exams does not foster intellectual independence or sound judgement.

In any vast public service, change is inevitably slow, and reformers currently face a Conservative administration, stubbornly wedded to old-fashioned educational ideas, with a large Parliamentary majority.

But public opinion can be shifted, even if the politicians can’t. (They will catch up eventually.) Here, I want to identify just three elements of necessary future reform, if we are to create a system fit for modern purpose.

Our first aim should be to rethink some basic goals of our education system, to keep in mind the impact of any policy change on all children, not just the most affluent or academic.

Big Issue founder and cross-bench peer John Bird has recently introduced a Future Generations Bill into the Lords which, if passed, would require governments to consider the long-term impact of all policy proposals.

Such a future-proofing test might have called a necessary pause to Michael Gove’s radical overhaul of our exam system in 2014 which has led to such stress and demoralisation in so many schools. It would certainly call into question the notable gap in spending between better off and poorer communities.

For this, surely, is a second fundamental aim of school reform: to equalise educational resources. Let’s start with abolition of charitable status for private schools (private schools in Scotland will lose their charitable rate relief next year), add VAT to private school fees (with the income going directly to the state sector) and fairer access to university for students from poorer homes. We should also end admissions tests to secondary schools that promote social or ethnic segregation, and boost funding to schools and areas that need it most.

Some of our most exciting schools are already doing things differently

Finally, we urgently need to make the experience of education more relevant and engaging.  There has been a worrying drop in the take up of arts subjects in recent years, which must be reversed, and pupils need more relevant subject content. One inspiring development is the current campaign for a new natural history GCSE, which if endorsed, will encourage young people to learn about, connect
with and campaign to save our fast-vanishing natural world. 

It is also time for a serious debate on phasing out GCSEs. There is no need to get rid of exams entirely; instead, let’s make them just one element in a broader suite of assessments including oral presentations, extended projects, engagement in the community and the creation of portfolios that can showcase the true breadth of a pupil’s work.

Some of our most exciting schools are already doing things differently. At XP Doncaster, rated outstanding across the board, ‘expeditionary learning’ puts pupils to work in teams to solve real-life problems. School 21 in East London encourages oracy – the art of effective speaking – from the beginning of the secondary years. Pupil confidence, and exam results, rise accordingly.

We know that only a minority of young people thrive in an intense exam-oriented atmosphere, and that we can develop more flexible and imaginative forms of assessment. Let’s make schools places where a love for learning is stimulated for life rather than a dull, grinding experience that, for so many, ends in a handful of predictably disappointing results.

Melissa Benn is a writer, journalist and campaigner. She is co-author of The Truth About Our Schools (Routledge, £18.99)