When will our exam factory culture end?

Written by: Dr Mary Bousted | Published:
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Too many young people are being failed by an examination and qualifications system that is outdated and punitive. Our exam factory culture must end, says Dr Mary Bousted

Because the world is changing, it is time we thought about change in education too.

Nowhere is this needed more than in secondary education, where over the last 10 years governments have taken a qualifications system that was already out-of-date and made it more backward-looking still.

Learning and qualifications in vocational and academic pathways are kept separate. Progress 8 and the EBacc have narrowed the range of qualifications at 16.

In GCSEs and A levels there is a very heavy reliance on end-of-course examinations; skills of knowledge-retention are prioritised, others left undeveloped.

Perhaps above all, for the forgotten third of students, those it deems unsuccessful, it is a disqualification system that makes it difficult to qualify for the next stage of life and work.

Beyond the Downing Street bunker, these are problems widely acknowledged – by the recent Times Education Commission, by ex-ministers, by the House of Commons Education Select Committee, by exam boards themselves.

But how do we move from pointing out the deep deficiencies of the system to establishing persuasively the principles of a new one? How does change happen?

This was the task taken on by the Independent Assessment Commission. The commission, of which the NEU is a part, brought together educators, parents and students with researchers, policy experts and business organisations. Its new report Qualifications for a new era: Equitable, reliable assessment, has now been published (2022).

At its core is a vision of an integrated and inclusive qualifications system that offers every student opportunities to include “academic” and “vocational” elements seamlessly alongside accreditation for skill development, extended inter-disciplinary study, and community contribution.

There must be pathways for all of England’s young people between school, college, university and employment that include a coherent 14 to 19 assessment and qualification experience. In the process, GCSEs in their present form, where the qualification is based solely on high-stakes examinations, need to change fundamentally.

To realise this vision, England needs to begin a journey on which other countries of the UK are already well advanced – with clear statements of national policy direction, a research-informed model of change, and a central role for teachers in the design and implementation of the new model. What is unexceptional in other places must become the norm here, too.

The report does not aim to provide a ready-made package of reform. It does not aim to be the last word on a vast and complex subject. Its intention is to bring change closer by thinking about its values and purposes.

Its hope is to make a space for dialogue, in which many will have their say. It wants to see a new system that grows from a common recognition of needs, not from the whims of Whitehall.

Too many children and young people are being failed by a system that is outdated and punitive. Our exam factory culture is placing unnecessary stress on students and narrowing their learning experience.

It is high time the powers that be realise that we need an education system fit for 21st century. Harking back to their own childhoods or those of a distant era even to them is stifling to say the least and has created an education system that does not give young people the education they need. The world has moved on and so must we.

  • Dr Mary Bousted is the joint general secretary of the National Education Union. Read her previous articles for SecEd via http://bit.ly/seced-bousted

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