Barnaby Lenon is Professor of Education at the University of Buckingham, and Chairman of the Independent Schools’ Council. He is a former head of Harrow, and was the founding chair of the London Academy of Excellence, a state free school in East London.
Exams have been cancelled two years in a row because of a combination of uncertainty about the pandemic and a wish to protect the minority who have fallen behind. That is why teachers are being asked to come up with the grades this year – grades which reflect ‘the standard at which the pupils are performing’: something which sounds a lot easier than it is.
I can think of six groups who are using this moment to suggest that future exams should be scaled back or scrapped. As someone who taught teenagers for 40 years, I am sure this would be a mistake.
One reason why I believe exams matter is the tremendous value of committing knowledge and information to the long-term memory. For most children, carrying what they have learnt in school into adult life depends in large measure on them being forced to memorise it. A typical average ability 16-year-old boy can reel off 400 or so words in French three months before he sits the GCSE. On the day of the exam that figure has grown to 1000 plus, all driven by fear of the exam.
Exams put pressure on children, and that is their great virtue. Girls are more likely to want to please the teacher and are therefore more motivated during the course. Boys do not especially want to please teachers – in my experience of teaching boys, 60 per cent are relatively idle during the term, but most make a big effort preparing for exams.
Exams are the essential building block of motivation. Ask any teacher who has had to teach an unexamined course to 15-year olds, as many schools used to do with Religious Studies. It was a hapless task, and almost all moved to taking the RS GCSE as a way of improving pupils’ attitude in lessons. Anyone who thinks that exams are a bad thing has never taught a class of teenage boys. Exams work because they make pupils work.
The age at which pupils are required to be in education or training has risen to 18 – so why do we need assessment at all at age 16? Answer: because in the English system we typically drop down from ten GCSE subjects to three A-levels at that age. On average, one of those A-levels is a subject not done at GCSE, so most pupils drop about eight subjects at the age of 16. It is vital that, having studied those subjects for up to twelve years, pupils be examined in all of them in order to consolidate what they know and measure their progress.
Exam results are the necessary qualification for moving to the next level. We do not want pupils embarking on A-levels unless they have a GCSE performance which suggests they might achieve something worthwhile. We do not want students embarking on a medical degree if they cannot get a good grade in Chemistry: they would be too likely to fail.
The alternative to exams is continuous teacher assessment. In England before 2015, we experimented with teacher assessment and it was disastrous. Many teachers hated it, because they came under huge pressure to get good marks for all pupils (where do you think grade inflation came from?), and because those ‘controlled assessments’ were intensely dull. Instead of getting on and teaching a course as they would wish, the academic year became dominated by dreary teacher-assessed coursework.
Cambridge Assessment published research last month which showed that those who say ‘we are the only country that examines pupils at age 16’ are just plain wrong. Pupils in many successful countries take exams at the age of 15 or 16. They force children to place the knowledge they have been presented with into the memory.
Once in the memory, new things start to happen in the brain – like analytical thinking and the creation of links between different bits of knowledge. Educated people know things, and the reason they know things is not simply because ‘they have been taught it’. Far too many children are taught things but know nothing. The essential step in the process is commitment to memory.
State schools have hugely improved in recent years, not least because of the reforms introduced by the Conservatives after 2011 and the guiding hand of Nick Gibb. Some are getting excellent results with non-selective intakes. In 2012, I helped set-up a free school in Newham which gets better Oxbridge entry than many independent schools. What we see is that good grades in public exams are achievable for schools of any type and are the surest way of driving social mobility for disadvantaged pupils.
Of course it is right to constantly reassess what we do in schools. But scrapping public exams in favour of teacher-assessment, while necessary during a pandemic, would be a huge mistake.