Exam Utopia?

Like many teachers across the country today I got up, checked the A level results on the exam boards website and then went in to school to see the students pick up their results. It is a routine that many teachers share and for some it is as nerve racking as it is for the students. Did your class get the “right” results? Did the exam board moderate you down, or in most cases “how much did they moderate us down this year”? Will the students be happy with what they got? Will the school? All things teachers think but for me the only thing I thought was have results lost their meaning?

For many students their explosive joy or abject misery is based upon if their results facilitate their progression onto their desired next stage. Education as a whole is, or dare I say has, become a means to an end and little else. It has become the motorway to the future, hopefully getting you where you want to go but of little intrinsic beauty in it’s own right. We send students along that motorway pointing out a far flung land that may be reachable if they stick to the road ahead, don’t stall and don’t run out of petrol. Motorways are the easiest and quickest way to reach a destination but no-one enjoys being on them. Junctions are spaced far apart and the only sense of satisfaction one gains from reaching them is knowing another section of road is now behind you. If you take a wrong turn or get off too soon it can seem disastrous as can any “fails” along the education treadmill to a “successful future”. So are we doing it all wrong? Is their a better way?

I love learning. I struggled at school in my early years and then found secondary school boring but now I absolutely love to learn new things no matter what subject. Being a teacher is a great job as we are always pushed by our students to answer all “those questions” kids ask and it makes for a very fulfilled life, but the education system as a whole seems to focus on the future more than the now. I dislike motorways, I much prefer country lanes. On a country lane their is always something to see, the journey in itself is enjoyable and if you take a wrong turn you get the benefit of seeing even more countryside. I like to see education in this same sense, enjoyed and as much about the journey as it is the destination, which once reached simply becomes another stop off along the next journey. So how could we enhance that feeling in students and change the exam factory into a tour company?

Well at their most basic what is the point in results and grades? Ultimately it is to separate students into groups so others can judge them for their suitability for something. For companies looking to employ students straight from A level many members of the public have a very limited understanding of the exam and course structures. Also the media feeds the confusion fire by constant claiming of devaluing or lowering standards so most employers take A level results with a pinch of salt. I feel a students personality, willingness and attitude have more bearing in an interview than a letter on a piece of paper. So do we need results? Well yes we should celebrate and reward the effort shown by young people but it should be a celebration of the journey not simply a ticket to escape. So why not have less grades? We could use the boundaries universities use with 1st, 2nd and 3rd class being the only judgement placed. After all A levels are GCE qualifications which stand for General Certificate of Education not VSCAP (Very Specific Certificate of Academic Prowess) which is what they seem to now be, so why would we need more division than that? Well in a word universities. They need a way to judge very quickly the thousands of students that apply to them each year. That said universities are always commenting that A levels do not prepare students for their further studies so do A levels really help or hinder universities. What about having a university entrance exam separate from A levels? So divide the two tasks they currently do to a mediocre standard and have on one hand A Levels which celebrate education and then separately exams for those students wishing to go on to university.

Obviously I am not suggesting each university holds its own entrance exams but instead national exams are held, similar to now but not tied up with A levels. We could even have them at a different time so a student wanting to do Medicine for example would sit a medical exam with elements of biology, english, chemistry, maths and whatever else was seen as needed for a course of that type. Design technology could have elements of maths, physics, problem solving, engineering, business and english whereas the the maths entrance exam might be more specifically biased to maths. The entrance exams would be tailored to the type of career they want and would be marked nationally. Then universities could publish what pass mark they require to join their course rather than the complex UCAS Points system we have now. Gaining that pass mark would then allow you to apply for that course and then interviews and the such would then take place. If you did these exams in year 12 it would give students time to organise, apply and be accepted to their chosen course before leaving school. This would mean school staff could help them with their choices rather than these frantic meetings we have with students on results day when time is of the essence and emotions cloud decisions. It would also do away with clearing and as the exams are on a variety of subject matters no one teacher or subject could teach to the exam so the results would be a much clearer assessments of students ability. Then by the time results day arrives those wishing to go on to university would have already decided upon their future choices and the certificates would be a pure celebration of their journey.

Could an exam utopia ever exist? Where education and learning in it’s own right is held with as much value as an envelope containing a piece of paper. Who knows but for now try to promote that journey and lead your students down a few country lanes once in a while.

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