Let’s get rid of exams by Barnaby Lenon

The best argument for getting rid of exams is that they having a bad effect on society by strongly suggesting that the only way of being successful in life is doing well in academic qualifications. They prioritise the cognitive elite at the expense of those who have completely different talents, especially those David Goodhart calls talents of ‘hand’ and ‘heart’ – the ability to make things, the ability to work in a caring profession.

The Covid-19 pandemic alerted us to the huge importance of boffins – the scientists especially. But it equally raised the profile of nurses and care workers. It exposed the consequences of the failure of our country to make things like ventilators, PPE and drugs.

When I started teaching (at Eton in 1977) academic qualifications had much less importance than they do now. Back then the school was a comprehensive – inevitably, as most pupils were ‘selected’ by House Masters-elect before they were aged one. Once a boy had turned age one his chances of admission were greatly reduced. So, some of the pupils were quite unacademic and did poorly in exams. The great thing was that nobody, as far as I can remember, minded in the least. Many of the academic failures went straight to work, often in the army, and by the age of 21 they had success and money that their cleverer peers at university could only dream of. In those days if you wanted to be a banker, army officer or solicitor you did not need a degree.

In the years since then numerous things happened. The proportion of the population taking exams shot up.  Before 1965 only 20% of the population took exams at age 16 (O-levels).  In 1965 the CSE (Certificate of Secondary Education) was introduced for the next 40% who were interested in vocational courses. In 1988, the GCSE began and it was only at that point that that all children took exams at 16. The proportion going to university rose from 10% in 1975 to 50% now. So, selection of everyone by academic education is a new phenomenon – dating from the 1980s.

But those are just the facts. What lay behind these facts? Clearly there has developed an assumption that exams are the BEST way of assessing people’s worth, despite the fact that they do not directly measure most of the things that employers value most, such as ability to speak well, team players, loyalty, honesty, imagination etc.

At the same time politicians became obsessed with the concept of social mobility driven by success in exams – improving grades for ‘disadvantaged pupils’. What they mean by ‘disadvantaged’ is those pupils on free school meals – about 3 in 10 of the pupil population. It is certainly true that disadvantaged pupils as a group do worse in their GCSEs than the advantaged. In 2020, 56% of the disadvantaged got a grade 4 (pass) or better in English and Mathematics GCSEs compared to 78% of the non-disadvantaged. But if you look at the number of pupils rather than % you see that the number of non-disadvantaged pupils failing English and mathematics is in fact far higher than the number of disadvantaged. Disadvantaged pupils are worthy of attention, but so are white boys and so are pupils with special needs (at least 15% of the total). They, too, get poor results.

What is more, under the Ofqual grading system which was put in place and is supported by politicians, the proportion passing any given GCSE is more-or-less set-in stone in order to prevent grade inflation. So, if 30% failed last year, 30% will fail this year. What that means is the % of disadvantaged pupils passing any given GCSE will only go up if the % of non-disadvantaged pupils passing goes DOWN. A zero-sum game.

The current government was particularly keen to see a big increase in the proportion of disadvantaged pupils going to university, and in this they have been successful. It has happened in four ways.

Firstly, pupils in state schools have been prevented from studying vocational courses before the age of 16.  They have been required to study academic subjects. Funding for vocational courses was withdrawn after the Wolf Report in 2010 which showed that vocational equivalents to GCSEs had little value to employers.

Secondly, the Office for Students and its predecessor bodies have required state-funded universities to develop access targets to increase the proportion of their students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. This has led to ‘contextual admissions’ – students from lower income homes being admitted to university with poorer grades.

Thirdly, a number of new schools, especially in London, have been spectacularly successful at getting pupils on free school meals very high GCSE and A-level grades.

Finally, the number of places available at universities has shot up so that now pretty well everyone who wants to go to university can do so. At first many of those ‘extra’ places went to young women from middle-class homes, but subsequently many went to pupils from lower income homes, especially young women.

All of this seems a good thing: bright children from poorer homes should be getting good exam results and going to university. But it has been part of the wider picture: a growing obsession with academic qualifications at the expense of any alternative.

In fact, credentialism (using exam grades to select employees) can limit social mobility. Exam results correlate strongly with social class. We all know that knowledge gained at school or university is only of limited value to most jobs. If employees are selected on the basis of exam grades this could well be a barrier to social mobility.

So, while we will all agree with the notion of fairness – of course all children have an equal right to a good education – we should acknowledge that alongside this has developed a feeling that academic results matter far more than anything else; one form of unfairness has been replaced by another. Ranking everyone by their exam results has done a disservice to those who are better equipped to work with their hands or heart: they are on the whole poorly paid and less well regarded.

Perhaps part of the reason for the growing importance of written exams it that are generally marked by independent people and summarised in one number or grade. This gives a superficial impression of fairness, one that is comforting for those (like universities) who want to make their decisions on the basis of hard evidence and fine distinctions. But they are not fair – as everyone who really knows how exams work appreciates.

Another paradox about fairness is that, if we are going to rank people on the basis of their cognitive ability, we have to concede that 50% are going to be below average. So, the chances of the population as a whole being happy with this arrangement are small. Especially as cognitive ability comes from your genes and your environment neither of which you can, as a young person, control.

One could well go further and suggest that selection by exam results is proving to be rather disappointing. Michael Sandel, in his book “The Tyranny of Merit”, describes how in Europe and North America politics has become dominated by people with good degrees from top universities in a way that was never previously the case. As their academic quality has risen, the competence of politicians has fallen. Academic qualifications are a poor basis for selecting political or civic leaders.

Those of us who work in and with schools love education for many reasons. But society as a whole should avoid falling into the trap of thinking that exam grades, whether from school or university, are the best or only way of selecting people.

By Barnaby Lenon, Dean of Education at the University of Buckingham

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