Anthony Seldon

More exams, less education

Anthony Seldon, headmaster of Brighton College, says that children are being overworked by dumbed-down tests, and that analysis and creativity take second place to getting the right scores

At this time of year, like every head in the country, I watch over my school with a mixture of pride and concern: pride that so many of our pupils have obviously prepared well for their exams (and have turned up!), and anxiety for those who are finding the ordeal difficult or who will be failing to do themselves justice.

But I have a wider concern, too. I have been progressively losing faith in the examination system to inspire stimulating and exciting lessons, and to assess pupils in ways that challenge and that properly differentiate between them.

The cry every August, when the exam results come out, is that they are becoming easier, that standards are being ‘dumbed down’, and that there is ‘grade inflation’. The government barks back that any improvement in results is genuine and reflects the fact that pupils are now better taught than ever before. The improvement in the top A grade at A-level has indeed been remarkable. For 25 years from 1963 a quota ensured that just the top 10 per cent of candidates achieved an A grade. But in 1988 the quota was removed in favour of a new system: grades were to be awarded on the basis of candidates meeting set ‘examination criteria’. The numbers of A grades began to rise sharply. In 1991 it was 11.9 per cent; in 1997, the year Labour came to power, it was 16.3 per cent; and last year it was 22.3 per cent. Does this mean that the quality of top A-level candidates has doubled in the last 15 years?

Rather than wait for August’s ritual dance, I want to open up in June the debate about our national examination system and whether it is serving our children — and indeed our universities — as well, after years of innovation and alleged improvement, as it should be.

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