Exam Questions: A Failing Education System

Photo by Cesar Harada (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The pandemic has shed new light on issues that had existed for decades. Members of the National Education Union (NEU), who have worked so hard to implement online learning, have been able to look, literally, into children’s homes. They saw the huge inconvenience some face – overcrowded rooms shared with siblings or relatives, damp on the walls in temporary accommodation with spotty phone connections and no broadband.

This is not new to many educators. The NEU’s No Child Left Behind campaign has identified that an alarming 4.3 million children are trapped in poverty in the UK, which equates to nine pupils in every class of 30. The impact of the pandemic has only made the situation worse. Our Freedom of Information request, for example, confirmed that children whose parents have blue-collar jobs have been much less likely to be able to work from home – and will have had more exposure to Covid-19. Fewer resources, less support, more health risks.

The pandemic has also laid bare another discrimination – the bias implicit in our review system. In the summer of 2021, the algorithm that assessed the first distribution of exam results allowed children in independent schools to do much better. This lifted the veil on the grade rationing that happens every year in GCSE exams. Following Labor reforms in 2009, after universities complained of having difficulty selecting prospective students due to grade inflation, examination boards, along with the exam regulator, have limited the percentage of top marks to only 8%.

Grade rationing is also expected to be a big discriminatory feature of summer 2022 results – even if exams are graded more generously. We already know that children receiving free school meals have likely missed out on more education throughout the pandemic. In fact, while 54% of private schools said all of their students had access to appropriate devices for remote learning during the early 2021 shutdowns, the corresponding figure for public schools was 5%. During the Omicron wave in early 2022, public schools were more than twice as likely to report high staff absence rates as private schools. The pandemic has further perpetuated inequalities in an already unequal system.

The future of GCSEs

This brings us to the question of what should we do about GCSE exams, not just now but also in the future, whether to reform them or abolish them altogether?

First consider the current system. 16-year-olds take 30 separate GCSE exams (some lasting over an hour) over three weeks in the summer. They generally don’t have access to reference books of any kind – memorization is key – and there is virtually no other form of assessment that contributes to their grades. Their teachers spend months working on exam technique because they want their students to succeed and their school wants to succeed in the rankings. Those who have the means will have private tutors to ensure their achievements. Then, once completed, students’ scripts are scored by examiners, and exam boards distribute the scores through a process called “comparable scores”, which rations the number of scores.

The current structure poses many problems. As well as reducing learning much faster than other countries, England tops the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) rankings for rote learning. We test recall, but we do not assess or develop skills in the subject.

Additionally, the system of 30 all-or-nothing exams after months of cramming is a major contributor to teen anxiety and mental illness, exacerbated by the grade rationing system. A third of children are told they have failed in English or math each year. Unsurprisingly, the high stakes for schools lead to many “unexplained exits”. Many of those overrepresented in the so-called shocking 69,000 releases are poor, black, and disabled children, and those with emotional and social needs.

Our whole system is clearly so bad for disadvantaged children that those on free school meals account for a third of failures each year. And let’s be clear – they didn’t really “fail”, they just didn’t perform as well as another kid in this exam race system. Even if every teacher and every student worked twice as hard, a third would still be told they failed – and that would undoubtedly be the same group of less privileged children. We ration success.

Create change

All of these issues are why the NEU has set up an independent commission to seek to change our assessment system. It’s important that we have an open discussion, because while the current system may seem “normal” to many, that doesn’t mean it’s fair.

There is a moment here and there are alternatives. It’s not just the NEU that recognizes this. The Times runs a commission on education, as does the global learning company Pearson and former education secretary Kenneth Baker’s think tank.

We should be thinking much bigger about the change that many of us are looking for. For example, we need to reconsider whether high-stakes examinations at 16 should continue if all young people continue their education or training until the age of 18. Should we instead be giving every 16 year old the opportunity to undertake a different type of challenge, alongside formative assessments by their teachers? Shouldn’t our assessment system be essentially criterion-referenced and not prescriptive, so that we can remove the barrier of grade rationing?

These are not students who are not asked to work hard or who are not challenged. Nor is it – as opponents claim – that we are against preparing children for the world of work. We are in favor of preparing children for a fulfilling life and part of that is preparing for work.

To say that we are against a narrow curriculum, against tests that favor memorization and do not assess the skills you need in this subject, is not lacking in rigor. To say that we want students to be assessed for what they can actually do – their creativity, their teamwork, their initiative – is by no means sweet.

We need significant reform to our system of examinations for children when they turn 16 – and teachers, students and parents must shape that change.

Kevin Courtney is co-secretary general of the National Union of Education. This article originally appeared in issue 235, “Educate, Agitate, Organize” (Spring 2022). Subscribe today to read more articles and support independent media.