Rachel Moore: Exam system does not prepare pupils for workforce
PUBLISHED: 19:03 22 August 2018 | UPDATED: 19:19 22 August 2018
Thousands of teenagers will get their GCSE results on Thursday, but are they really a judge of intelligence?
This is the first August for five years when my household hasn’t been in a flat spin about public exam results.
Smugly, I can relax with a strong coffee this morning empathising with all the other parents supporting their trembling teens out of the door, reassuring them with pats and platitudes that exam results aren’t the be-all-and-end-all because real life is full of second chances, new opportunities and fresh directions.
What I do know though is that ‘education’, as we nostalgically label what our children do at school all day in lessons designed for 16-year-olds and 18-year-olds to leave the system with a paper passport, is more akin to a meat processing factory than schools of real learning and thinking skills.
Our system of churning out young people who can – or can’t – pass exams conveyor belt-style is simply not fit for purpose. Intelligence is judged by those with a good memory. Those with photographic recall are winners and those who haven’t are losers.
Nothing new there, but the demands of the 21st century workplace have changed.
Results collected today – and A-levels last week – aren’t the result of rigorous testing of original thought, problem solving and developing ideas but of retaining and regurgitating facts within the narrowest of marking systems.
That’s not taking anything away from those celebrating great results today, and those conquering their own problems to achieve results that might not be top of the tree but are incredible individual accomplishments.
But our exam system is a terrible mess and painfully out of sync with the rest of Europe, and for preparing young people to slot into workforces.
Today saw the first results of Michael Gove’s “tougher” courses, where students are awarded grades 9-1 rather than A-G in the biggest change to the system since O levels were replaced in the 1980s.
Like the new A levels, they are said to be more rigorous and turning back the clock 30-odd years when the end exams are everything, there’s no coursework and on-the-day performance is all that counts.
The new exams haven’t only struck the fear of God into students and their parents, but schools so concerned about the impact of fewer higher grades on their league table position, are said to have done all sorts of jiggery-pokery to keep children out of exam entries so only the able count in this processing factory of young heads. These exams were said to be introduced to be more demanding, fulfilling and stretching for the UK to compete internationally, although other European countries don’t have public exams at 16.
Incomprehensibly, when the law now insists young people remain in education and training until 18, exams at 16, redundant everywhere else, become even more challenging; so much so that students have been said to have been buckling under the pressure at a time when mental wellbeing issues among young people are at their peak.
Geoff Baron, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the “bar has been deliberately set at a higher level” by Gove’s changes – harder, with more content and involve sitting more papers.
A new even higher grade than an A* – 9, equivalent to the very top of the former A* performers – is designed to highlight the best performance.
This unnecessary pressure has been added to prove what exactly? How exactly does this qualify anyone to offer employers, and society, what they need.
And why test at this level at 16 if the education leaving age is 18?
In the rest of Europe, 16-year-olds have internal exams and then continue to study a wider syllabus, including up to four modern languages, subjects dying a death in the UK, until 18.
Here, teachers obsessed by how their students’ grade will affect the school profile teach solely for exam success rather than nourishing and feeding young minds to think for themselves. It’s not their fault; it’s the system they work in and with.
Today, some teenagers today will be picking up results for 14 subjects. Why does any young person need 14 GCSEs, only then to immediately limit their learning to three, maybe four, A levels? It makes no sense.
If we are really to compete with our European cousins, broadening rather than limiting until 18 would surely produce more rounded individuals and future employees.
But on we plough on with our pointless archaic memory testing, making a right brouhaha every year at our clever young people, leaving those without top grades (who often go on to achieve great things at work) feeling rubbish.
The reward of top grades are A level places and then university, while the rest are left feeling second-class and opting for “vocational” options, still made to sounds like consolation prizes rather than a positive choice.
The system might have tightened up, but not for the better. Spare our 16-year-olds the public exam mangle at 16 and equip them with wider employer-desired skills and a broader ‘education’ leaving the big testing to 18.
Our European neighbours have shaped a far better system than ours by starting children later, having fewer exams and a wider, more-balanced syllabus with relaxed attitudes to learning, and they manage to shape innovative thinkers, problem-solvers and leaders, not young people judged of being capable or incapable of passing narrow unnecessary exams.