Anthony Seldon

Have we let exams become too important in shaping schools?

Have we let exams become too important in shaping schools?
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I was working in my study at Brighton College one summer term afternoon when my PA banged on the door: someone at The Spectator wanted to speak to me urgently. An animated editor burst on the line, audibly back from a very good lunch, barking: ‘What’s all this you’re saying about exams and tests squeezing scholarship and rounded learning out of schools?’

‘Sitting exams in rows in sports halls has little bearing on what school pupils will ever do later in life,’ I spluttered, my fumbled response sufficient for him to commission an article ‘by tomorrow’.

Teaching for tests, I wrote in that piece, was damaging schooling because teachers, robbed of their professionalism, were teaching physics GCSE, rather than physics, and Spanish A-level, rather than Spanish. Our schools were no longer teaching science and languages, but exam techniques. Genuine academic and independent learning was being sacrificed: ‘A-levels do absolutely nothing to encourage scholarship,’ said Mike Tomlinson, a previous chief inspector of schools. The winners in the exam game were the canny teachers and pupils who had worked out precisely what box-ticking markers were looking for as they sifted through piles of exam scripts every June and July. Why, I concluded, did Britain subject its schoolchildren to so many more tests and exams than countries doing better educationally and economically than us?

Little surprise that grade inflation got caught up in this riptide, with the numbers of top grades at A-level increasing threefold. Exams are important, I wrote, but by allowing them to become all-important, and making them so prescriptive, we were damaging the very people we were trying to help. In education, as elsewhere, not everything that counts can be counted.

That cover article appeared some 16 years ago. Since then, schooling has improved, if unevenly. New energy from inspiring school leaders and dynamic chains such as Ark and United Learning has seen many schools transformed. Imaginative ideas and an influx of private capital and energy are sweeping aside dull uniformity and a culture of low expectations.

This summer’s exam debacle and grade inflation were wearisomely predictable. The dwindling traditionalists, like Custer at Little Bighorn, cling on proudly to their philosophy in a pointless battle. A ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum is the holy wine, and bountiful tests and exams the sacred bread in the holy communion of true believers. The most fervent in this camp regard skills, work experience, the arts, wellbeing and character as dangerous and profane.

Ranged against them are a growing chorus who rail against the weight given to exams and league tables. The more fervent demand an end to them entirely. This camp believes the focus on ‘core knowledge’ is irrelevant to the skills young people need to succeed in the 21st century, a world in which algorithms and artificial intelligence will always outperform human beings in the very aptitudes that the testing and examination regime champions.

There would be no debate if the traditionalists’ formula was in fact succeeding. Enhancing social mobility? Well, no: it was in reverse even before the pandemic. Improved exam results? For the academically gifted maybe, but with a hideously long and growing tail of young people whom the heavily academic curriculum doesn’t suit. Breadth? The relentless exam result focus has seen arts and sports further diminished, and the development of the ‘whole child’, the stock in trade of the independent sector, squeezed. Preparing students better for universities? Again, not really: the traditionalists’ emphasis on passive learning is alien to the independent learning that higher education wants. Preparing them better for the world of work? Where does one begin? It’s rare to meet an employer who says that rote-learning skills are what they need. They want creative and entrepreneurial thinkers, social skills, team workers and problem solvers.

Ten years ago I was summoned to Downing Street by Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s mercurial chief of strategy, to explain to officials from the Department for Education why, in his words, ‘I think the system is crap’. I didn’t think the system was ‘crap’ at all, I replied: but it could be much better and more successful academically, as well as better at turning out rounded young people, if wider indicators of pupil achievement were measured rather than just exam results. We need schools to teach pupils how to learn and how to think, I said.

The response was sceptical. So I asked if I could submit a paper to the Department for Education, listing some state schools which succeeded above expectations academically, but which also offered a rich extracurricular provision, exhibited a kind and caring atmosphere and prioritised the nurturing of good character. Such schools put the lie to the idea that one needs to sacrifice breadth to achieve strong exam performances. A week later, I sent in the list of 40 such schools. I’m still waiting for a reply.

Today, I would number in the high hundreds schools achieving excellent exam results with genuine breadth. We need to accelerate the pace of change with a root-and-branch rethink in education, which is why I proposed earlier this year that the Times launch the national education commission, chaired by Rachel Sylvester, due to report in June next year. To existing concerns about the system’s shortcomings, lockdown has added new ones, with social divisions widening, teachers leaving the profession and recruitment difficult in key areas and subjects, and up to a third of young people reporting mental health conditions.

Those, like me, who believe in the middle ground between traditionalists and progressives are attacked by those in both corners. As a head for 20 years, I was passionate about driving up exam results, from 256th to 21st at A-level at Wellington College: but I always knew that education was about much more than this. Happiness comes from giving the young stimulating and achievable challenges. Introducing the International Baccalaureate offered my students a more scholarly and broader alternative to A-level. Character and wellbeing were emphasised, with pupils’ all-round achievements celebrated alongside their academic successes. Few have squared the circle better of outstanding exam results with excellence in breadth than my successor at Brighton College, Richard Cairns, or Katharine Birbalsingh in the state sector.

Every pupil needs to learn maths and literacy and to acquire a solid grounding in science, the humanities and the arts. Facts matter. But young people also need to be able to apply the knowledge they learn, which is why learning skills is fundamental, so the young leave school adaptable, resilient and creative.

There is so much to celebrate in our school system. It does a pretty good job at turning out young people — but for the jobs and society of the 20th century. Among education secretaries since 2000, Michael Gove stands out, fighting tenaciously to embed academic rigour into the curriculum. But we in Britain are increasingly 25 years behind the most advanced schools and systems globally.

Boris Johnson has the opportunity to bring about a step change in schooling akin to what happened under Rab Butler in 1944, the Thatcher reforms in the late 1980s and the Adonis-Gove changes of this century. The red wall areas will never level up unless a fresh approach is taken on schools and post-18 education.

Johnson was the editor who commissioned my article 16 years ago. He understood then the argument that education cannot be reduced to just exam results. Schools policy since he became PM has been dominated by Covid, which is now easing. He has an open goal to reshape exams and schools and for a generation. He needs to go out for another convivial lunch.

Written byAnthony Seldon

Anthony Seldon’s Impossible Office? The Prime Minister 1721-2021 is published in April.

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