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Could our obsession with exams lead to long term failure? – January 2017

Could our Obsession with Exams Lead to Long Term Failure?

With the recent publication of the Secondary School Performance tables, as Head of a non-selective independent school, I have to ask myself the question; What are these exams actually measuring and what are the long term effects of pushing children and young people through the process?

The Institute of Directors (IoD) criticises schools for failing to prepare children for the workplace with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed. They call for students who are “imbued with curiosity, open-mindedness and the ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated bits of information”.  It therefore begs the question what’s the point of our obsession with exam results? Have we just become exam factories as claimed by the IoD? How are we measuring intelligence? What about creativity and valuable interpersonal skills - are they worthless?

I take inspiration from the likes of Sir Ken Robinson who argues that schools cannot meet the needs of the future by just refining what we have done in the past. Today’s education system, which was designed and conceived in a different age, is based around the thinking that there are only two types of ability – academic and non-academic.  This has led to many brilliant people thinking they are not ‘intelligent’ as they are being judged against this sadly limiting mindset.

There is somewhat of a ‘production line’ mentality to our education system – ringing bells, children educated in batches based on date of manufacture (their age), siphoned off into separate subjects and separate facilities.

Instead of nurturing skills that are valuable in a computerised age, the current model stamps out innate creativity and divergent thinking, with standardisation being the main goal. I believe that it’s time to move away from an archaic system where the focus firmly remains on testing.

The factory analogy is pretty accurate as it seems our system is more at home in the industrial age and not the current ‘knowledge era’. Schools are still squashing children into an antiquated education machine, which spits them out as either bruised and battered rejects or as conformists; experts in rote learning and memory challenges rather than deep thinking and enquiry.

Fortunately, we in the independent sector are less shackled by the constraints laid down by the government, meaning we can take brave steps and lead change. However, we can only offer new approaches if parents are brave enough to embrace them. For many families, exam results are the main driver when choosing a school, but there are many others who are relieved to discover an alternative to the hot house environment.

Of course, our students will sit exams in the end and be judged against the same criteria as every other student in the country. Outcomes will continue to be important and of course, qualifications are the passport to a young person’s future career.

I favour a system that has a wider set of values, focusing on students’ wellbeing, without cramming or hothousing. In my experience, a gentler and more rounded approach to education encourages students to perform well not only in exams, but in life in general.

IWK - January 2017

Independent day and boarding school for boys and girls aged 3 - 18 in Somerset