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The Reality of the Exam System

Anecdote alert. Some people don’t like anecdotal evidence. They prefer bell curves and statistics. But we all know that statistics hide an awful lot of detail and for parents, the single example of their family life is all the data they need. Here are some stories about the changes to exams over the past few years and how they have impacted on my family. I know ours is not a unique experience.

Firstly, I should say we’ve been mostly lucky. Three boys who have largely enjoyed school, who are engaged with the world and are curious, creative and mostly happy. But the eldest two feel that they survived the system rather than being allowed to thrive in it. And the youngest is learning that the most exciting education he receives is the one outside of school.

Child number one. When he was in reception class, his teacher took me to one side. “I’m keeping him out of assemblies so we can have some one to one time. He has so many questions and is so insatiably curious, that I can’t cope with them when there are 29 other kids around. Is this ok?” Of course it was ok – I was grateful for her attention. When he was in Year 6, his class teacher gave him GCSE papers to do to keep him occupied. He loved being tested and sailed through SATs pretty much with full marks. Learning was easy for him. Minimal effort, maximum outcome. Then came KS3. Bored to tears, repeating subject matter he’d already encountered at primary school, he switched off. He barely opened a book in preparation for GCSEs. Be careful, we warned him – you can’t blag these exams. But he did. A sweep of As and A*s and again little effort. When it came to AS levels, he had a bit more of a shock. An English Literature result came in as a Grade D. His hopes of going to Oxford looked unlikely. But we were middle class and could afford to ask for a remark. And that D became a B and overall the B became an A. He made it to Oxford. Whereupon his tutor said “The first term here is about undoing all the damage that A Level did to you – you need to learn how to think, how to work, how to write.” And finally, my son had to work. He had to work really hard – for the first time since primary school, he rediscovered his love for learning and the rewarding feeling of challenge. He was lucky. But he still found it really hard to get a job. And two years later, his Oxford graduate girlfriend, with a high 2:1 in Biology, is working as a waitress and doing volunteer work in conservation in the hope that one day, a job will become available to her.

Child number 2. On paper, he’s as successful as his brother, but he’s had to work much, much harder for it. A talented artist, it became clear early on that no-one in primary school really cared about Art. The only things that mattered now were Literacy and Numeracy. In the seven years since his older brother had been in primary, things had moved on. Results were everything. He got his Level 5s, worked for them, but was bored and disillusioned with school. Like his brother, KS3 was dull as ditchwater, except for the chance to do Art. He spent as much time in the Art room as possible and jumped at the chance to take it for GCSE. He would have like to have taken DT as well, but his school forced him to take German. He hated it with a passion. Passed it and can’t speak a word. He found a very different GCSE world in 2016 to the one his brother had experienced in 2009. No speaking and listening in English. No modules. His A in a module for Science was dropped when the school realised that first grades only would count and moved hastily to a linear system in the middle of his GCSE years. It seemed like a mad decision – “but he’s already bagged an A”, we pointed out to the Head. But what mattered was not the individual’s results but the trend across the year group. That trend was slightly down. The decision was made to move to linear in the hope that the trend would go up. It didn’t. The move to linear in a system that was designed to be modular meant he sat around 25 exams in a three week period. His brother had sat the same over a two year period. No wonder the elder had sailed through. Younger was predicted an A/B in Maths. But then came Hannah’s sweets on the paper. It wasn’t, he explained, that there was a difficult question that threw him, but that it came in the middle of the paper, when all previous papers had been designed to get increasingly hard. This pattern had been designed to build confidence and this paper changed the game. Some would argue that it’s meant to be tough – that kids shouldn’t be able to predict the order of questions or their difficulty. But this is to ignore the fragile nature of confidence. Or how the mind copes with stress when it is exhausted – like when it has already sat six exams that week. He panicked and scraped a C. No big deal, we decided. He has the Maths in the bag, will never need most of that stuff again. The rest of his results were great, with the exception of German (another C won through blood, sweat and tears when an A or A* in DT would have been within his grasp). Move on.

Ah. Move on – to what? AS Levels of course. Except this year group were about to face the farce that has been the decoupling of AS Levels from A Level. But not all AS Levels. Only some. To date, a year on, as a parent, I have had no formal communication from his college about which were uncoupled, what it meant and why. I had to go in to ask. It turns out that ¬†only Philosophy is now counting as an AS. His other three subjects will have to be taken again at A2 level – double the amount of exams in the second year. So why bother doing AS at all? We were told as parents that it would allow universities to be able to offer places on the grounds of ‘real’ results. But the AS levels are not real – they’ve not been cashed in. And other colleges, offering only predicted grades, are free to inflate them. Furthermore, what we’ve found, as he’s spent weeks and weeks practising AS exam question technique and revising, is that other colleges, who decided not to bother with AS but put kids straight through to A2, are already teaching A2 content and starting coursework that my son won’t start for weeks, perhaps months. They haven’t had to lose five weeks to exam prep, revision and examination days. Those kids are weeks ahead of mine. Was this explained to me as a parent? No. Has anyone explained the changes to you and their implications, if you have a child sitting GCSEs?

As I write, there are specs for next year that are still to be approved and released. Teachers wanting to prep and plan for the new academic year are hampered by an extraordinary delay. Last year, the exam boards were so pressed for examiners, they were employing undergraduates with no experience of the exam or of teaching, to mark them. Teacher examiners were begged to take on extra papers, even though the research shows that overloading examiners compromises quality of marking. Some papers were even being marked on the day that results were released. Are parents aware of the cracks in the system? That we can’t rely on the results? Do they know that last year saw a record number of remarks? Or that the earlier you got your request for a remark in, the more likely you were to have the grade changed?

Our exam system is broken. And I was stung today to be told that to say so, is to be irresponsible. That to suggest that effort won’t guarantee success is irresponsible. Really? My own children’s experiences suggest otherwise. The experiences of working people all over the world every day suggest otherwise. The rise in wealth of those with access to what George Monbiot calls ‘unearned income’ at the expense of those grafting tells its own tale. It may be an unpalatable truth that we can’t trust exams. It may be even more unpalatable that exam success does not necessarily equate to success in the wider world. But we have a responsibility to crack open these issues to debate. Like I said earlier, we’re lucky. My gripes are minor – a small disappointment here, a minor inconvenience there. But for many, many children, whose parents don’t have an insight into the system, or those with SEN, who are now even more hampered by changes to the GCSEs, such as the removal of compensation for spelling and grammar for dyslexic children, the system is critically damaging.

So what can we do?

We can tell our children that there are no guarantees. That effort will make success more likely, but that it’s not the whole picture.

We can encourage our children to be flexible in their thinking – talking to them about complex issues where they have to consider many points of view. To get them to expect the unexpected so that surprises in exams don’t panic them.

We can tell them the truth, that in the end what will matter more than grades, are experiences and contacts. Encourage them to work. A job on a CV is worth its weight in gold. Build their contacts and wider experiences so they have references. It’s another uncomfortable truth that contacts count far more than grades when securing your first graduate position. That’s why the Opportunity Network in New York has been so successful. We need one of those here.

Don’t over organise younger children with timetabled activities. Leave them time to read, to explore knowledge, to build their capacity to concentrate and become obsessed with an interest. My youngest doesn’t feature much in this post, but he’s been teaching himself Japanese for the past two years, and Korean as a second language for the past year. He decided he was a Buddhist and that led onto an obsession with Asia and now with Asian Languages. He’s decided he wants to study Japanese, live in Japan… He’s nine. It all might change. But a dream dreamed in youth is a powerful thing. Leave space for dreams to grow.

And most of all, remind them, again and again, that tests are not the be all and end all. Personality, persistence, goodness, reliability – all these things, in the end, will matter.