It is time to scrap all examination up to 16 – including GCSEs

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Pete Henshaw, editor, SecEd
Hi Pete - great to see such a bold and strongly argued article. Now the question is how to effect ...

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The DfE must answer for the assessment chaos facing primary schools, but there is a wider debate – the sheer number of formal exams we force upon our young people. SecEd editor Pete Henshaw says it is time to scrap all exams up to and including GCSEs and go back to the drawing board...

The utter chaos facing our primary colleagues with regards to assessment and testing highlights just how exam-driven our education system has become.

The competence of the Department for Education (DfE) in managing these tests has been called into question. From the huge waste of money that was Baseline assessment (now axed) to the forced abandonment of key stage 1 spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPAG) tests because answers were published online, it is a farcical situation.

Most recently, key stage 2 SPAG test answers were leaked, and although this test has gone ahead, the DfE is now under significant pressure to prove its competence.

However, the sorry affair points to a wider cancer in education. It has highlighted the sheer number of formal tests and assessments that politicians now insist our children take.

From SPAG to phonics checks, key stage 1 and 2 SATs, GCSEs and A levels, we are putting pupils through formal examinations at the ages of 5, 7, 11, 16 and 18. This is not to mention the many mocks that they undertake in preparation.

Disingenuously, politicians argue that good schools should take the pressure off young people. But we know this is much more easily said than done, especially when we have the added pressure from many parents. It is also incredibly hard to achieve when the punitive measures that schools face should results dip constantly loom over the careers of headteachers and teachers.

The fact is that the stress of the exam factory school system is taking its toll on children. SecEd hears regular testament from schools, teachers, psychologists and other mental health experts about the rise in anxiety being reported among young people.

This is certainly not solely down to exams, but they play their part. Latest ChildLine figures report a continuing increase in contacts from young people stressed about examinations – with 4,000 such counselling sessions in the past year. It reports anxiety attacks, eating disorders, depression and insomnia as a result of high-stakes exams. Members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, meanwhile, reported children “crying through this week’s key stage 2 SATs”.

The government’s own mental health tsar, Natasha Devon has even raised concerns about our exams culture driving anxiety. She was abruptly sacked by the DfE. That says it all.

Schools minister Nick Gibb said recently that primary tests were “all about ensuring children understand” the English and mathematics they are being taught. But surely this is what teachers are for – teachers who this government says it trusts and wants to give autonomy to?

I reject this justification. Testing is a political tool. They are there to measure schools and to produce statistics, which are then spun to justify whatever agenda needs to be justified. It has always been thus, under previous governments and this current one.

Politicians need these statistics to show that something is either broken and in need of fixing, or to show that whatever has been “fixed” is now performing well.

Do we really think that if children passed through their education from 5 to 16 without all these exams that standards would fall? I for one don’t. We should scrap all formal testing, up to and including GCSEs. We have an education system to 18 and formal assessment only need take place at 18 as students move on. This would have the bonus of saving the millions of pounds that schools spend on exams every year (money that could be used to tackle the recruitment crisis, incidentally).

In an age when skills and aptitudes are so much more important than a GCSE certificate, our Victorian system of schooling and testing desperately needs to modernise. Three-hour written exams are simply not relevant anymore.

Of course facts must still be taught, but they should form the foundation of education, not the end goal. Basic knowledge can be assessed formatively by schools. We can then move to a system that teaches students how to apply their knowledge, develops the skills they will need, and assesses them in ways which reflect how they will spend their working lives.

We can use the curriculum to guide content, we can use Ofsted to ensure quality. We can use formal assessment at 18 to deliver final, robust qualifications. We can use student passports or portfolios to record progress, experience and achievements along the way. You get my point – to reinvent our system in such a way is not beyond the skill of our schools, politicians and educationalists. It is only the will we lack.

We have completely lost sight of what is important – of what education should be about. We have headed so far into the forest, we can no longer find our way out. And so we continue with testing and more testing because this is what we have always done – hoping that improved results will somehow provide some kind of justification. They won’t. We need to scrap the entire system and start again.

  • Pete Henshaw is the editor of SecEd and has been writing on education for more than 10 years. Email

I have long believed that we have an archaic and abusive system. Were any of us adults wishing to gain a qualification we would make sure we were ready first. Who would go for their driving test after 10 lessons just because a friend did if they did not feel prepared? And if they failed don't they take it again to get the qualification? A simplistic comparison but one we can all understand. I think that we operate a pupil factory that pushes out pupils with a pass/fail on them or A grade, B grade, C grade..etc. Pupils know what that means - it means good enough or not good enough!
If as a parent I set tasks that showed my child they were not good enough and then, before they left home, gave them a task that I knew they could not excel at and a certificate that said "Really a failure" I would rightly be thought of as a monster! It would be called psychological abuse. Is that not what the school exams and testing system does? Why do we need to put children into a line "Best to worst"? And who has the right to say that? Who choses what is examined? And for goodness sake what is the point? Really what is the point? To get into University? There are plenty of countries who act in a more civilised way (although many others do not).
There are plenty of qualifications students could get rather than NOT getting others. And many are not best assessed through exams. But who am I to say that I would rather have someone build a wall straight and strong and not be able to write an essay about it!

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Hi Pete - great to see such a bold and strongly argued article. Now the question is how to effect such a culture shift in the minds of politicians and (in many cases) school leaders. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this!


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