In favour of re-sit reforms


Moving to an exams system that allows less re-sits will do our students many more favours in preparing them for real life, says Karen Sullivan.

There’s a lot of grumbling going on about the government’s plans to drop the January A level exams, thereby preventing what it considers to be a “culture of re-sits”, in which students take exams with the expectation of getting a second, third or even fourth chance. With re-sits available only once a year, it’s likely that students will have to rely on their original grades, or re-sit only once.

Research shows that many students who do not reach the required standard first (and possibly second) time round, don’t do as well in their degree courses. Therefore, multiple opportunities to improve grades can achieve the desired intermediate result, but not actually do students any favours in the long-term. 

Also, a half-hearted approach to revision and learning undermines the whole process and purpose of education. There is never any need to understand and absorb an entire curriculum if bite-sized chunks can be addressed, one by one.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that students hedge their bets by choosing just some elements of a course to study, hoping that it will appear in some form in the exam. In a modular education system, there will always be later opportunities to fill in the gaps. However, this does not encourage the breadth of learning that 17 and 18-year-olds should have.

The truth is that students need to aim for success at the outset, and not expect a second opportunity. Being from Canada, where all of our exams were all-or-nothing and set at the end of the year, we developed strong time management skills and learned to consolidate knowledge on an almost constant basis by revising throughout the year.

When we learned something new, we were effectively “trained” to relearn the information that preceded it. In this way, we were prepared for our one-shot final examinations, and had a good, strong foundation of knowledge with which to approach them.

Many people have pointed out the fact that “exam nerves” can undermine performance on the day. While anxiety can be overwhelming for some students, the adrenaline produced sharpens the mind and it can be channelled to ensure a strong performance rather than used as an excuse for a weaker one. 

Students should be groomed for an expectation of success, and given the tools with which to achieve this, rather than having dozens upon dozens of exams peppering their final years, undermining the process of learning and the pleasure that should accompany it. 

Students cannot absorb and extrapolate information across a two-year course when their studies are constantly disrupted by exams and short-term goals.

Tony Little, head at Eton, believes there are too many public exams, meaning that students never get a chance to discover the joy of learning. He believes that cutting down the number, from GCSEs onwards, will give students more time for independent study, sport and cultural activities that will enhance and enrich their overall educational experience. There is wisdom in this. How much easier will it be for students to relax into learning without the ever-present preparation for constant exams?

Whatever the case, the changes have been rung and it is up to teachers to motivate students to attack their exams with vigour and determination, to learn from a single failure, and to expect and aim for success first time round. Do businesses get “second chances” to pitch? Do you get a second chance to train for a position or present yourself at a job interview? A second chance to operate on a critically ill patient or build a safe, structurally sound bridge? Nope – and that’s the lesson we should be teaching.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert.


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