John Humphrys - Back to School : and Back to Exams?

February 26, 2021, 5:52 PM UTC

Earlier this week it was announced by the government that teachers will have almost complete control over deciding the GCSE and A level grades of their pupils this summer. The education secretary Gavin Williamson said staff will also get to choose how they assess children after exams were cancelled because of the pandemic. Teachers can decide to rely on previous essays, coursework, “mocks” or any other type of class work if they so wish. They can also choose to set their own mini exams either of their own making or using questions provided by examination boards. It is now universally accepted that the opening of schools should be the priority - not just because children need to learn but because it is vital for their wellbeing and mental health. Winston Churchill famously once said that no good crisis should go to waste. There’s no doubt that we have a crisis. The real question is whether – and how – education might benefit from it in the long term. There’s a growing feeling that we need to take a critical look at the whole school exam culture – starting with GCSEs. Have they had their day?

Last year’s exam season ended in fiasco. The exams themselves couldn’t take place because of Covid so the task of assessing the pupils who would have sat them was handed over to the deity that increasingly governs our fate in the contemporary world, the great god Algorithm. The result was disaster. It turned out that Algorithm had been fed the wrong offerings so that no one had any faith in the grades He bestowed. In fact the greater and more ancient god, Fairness, pulled rank on the young upstart and instructed the faithful just to get on with things as best they could without the divine blessing of exam grades. The world did not fall apart.

No-one is quite sure yet how the new approach will work. What it won’t do is provide the standardised national assessment that can come only with external examiners marking papers to a nationally-applied measure. But does that matter? Or have these big, nationally-organised exams, at least in part, had their day?

Few people would argue against exams altogether. As part of an education they have their place, both in introducing an element of structure and discipline into a child’s education and as one measure of aptitude. Nor would many argue that ‘A’ levels, or some equivalent, are unnecessary. If, by their late teens, pupils are deemed still to be too young to divide into academic sheep and goats, it’s hard to see when they could be. And since not everyone can or should go to university, ‘A’ levels provide a necessary means of distinguishing between those who should and those who’d be better off doing something else. But it’s the future of other exams, and particularly GCSEs, that is in question.

The last forty years or so have seen a huge increase in both the number of exams children have had to sit and in the weight placed on them. ‘O’ levels and CSEs combined to form GCSEs, the exams taken by all fifteen or sixteen-year-olds prior to entering the sixth form (or not). But there have also been wholly new exams, such as the series of SATs exams imposed on various years in primary schools (where previously there had been no external exams until young children reached the age to

take the old Eleven-Plus), and AS levels, taken in the first year of the sixth form, the year when ‘pupils’ morphed into ‘students’, and which used to be regarded as the welcome year off between exams, when young minds could explore the world of learning more freely.

Why has there been this massive growing fad for examining children? The most obvious answer is to keep an eye on their progress. In itself, of course, this is a worthy motive since children can gain the education they individually need only if their individual progress is closely monitored and the teaching they receive tweaked accordingly. But you don’t need exams, still less nationally-organised exams, to do this. It’s what teachers are more subtly and sensitively doing every hour of their working days: they know their pupils and what specific needs they have better than anyone or better than any exam could possibly discover.

So the explanation for this explosion in examining must be sought elsewhere. It’s to be found in Westminster: politicians started to poke their fingers into things. Between the landmark Butler Act of the wartime coalition government in 1944 and the mid-1970s, political argument about secondary education was all about its structure. It was about whether the system the Butler Act had set up – in which secondary education was divided between (academic) grammar schools and (less academic) secondary modern schools, with the Eleven-Plus exam determining who went to which – should be retained, or abandoned in favour of the new concept of comprehensive schools, which would involve no selection by exam at the age of eleven – it being argued that this was far too early to judge children’s academic aptitude and so determine so young the future course of their lives. By the mid-1970s the comprehensive idea had won hands down: although the Conservative Party had been most hostile to the change, it was a Conservative education secretary, Margaret Thatcher, who presided over the biggest expansion of comprehensive education the country had yet seen.

But with this issue largely resolved, politicians didn’t quit the education field, they just changed their focus of interest. For the very first time they became seriously interested in what actually went on in schools. In 1976 James Callaghan made, unusually then for a prime minister, a major speech on education in which he expressed alarm. Partly this was because there was a growing view that many teachers were becoming too ‘political’: that supposedly left-wing, even Marxist, teachers, supported by even more left-wing, Marxist unions, were seeing their role as being to indoctrinate children rather than teach them. The degree to which this was true can be disputed but there was certainly a widespread suspicion that it was the case. Callaghan was motivated too by a belief that schools weren’t turning out the sort of pupils that matched the needs of the economy: plus ca change. So politicians needed to intervene.

This intervention really got going under the subsequent Thatcher government and especially under the guidance of one of her most active education secretaries, Kenneth Baker. In accordance with the Tory belief that competition and choice are good things in almost every aspect of life, Baker sought to introduce them into schools. Parents were given greater choice as to which state schools to send their children, and league tables, supposedly indicating the relative quality of schools, were instituted to help parents make informed choices. But how should the relative quality of schools be measured?

This is where exams came in. Although far from being the sole criterion of assessment, exam results became the main one. That largely explains the rapid growth in the number of exams (and their introduction in primary schools which also now had league tables) but it also explains a radical change in their role. They became the tool not just to assess children but also to assess schools and this caused, no doubt unintentionally, a radical change in the relationship between schools and their pupils. To put it at its most extreme, rather than schools existing to serve pupils, pupils now came to exist in order to serve schools.

That’s to say, it became an inevitable and determined goal of schools to rise within league tables, and the way for them to do that was to make sure their pupils did as well as possible in the exams. So, from having been just one element in a child’s education, exams and raising the level of results, became more and more the be-all and end-all of secondary education. The phrase ‘teaching to the test’ entered the lexicon. And it wasn’t just schools who were the ‘beneficiary’ of narrowing education into the process of training children into gaining better exam results. It also allowed politicians to wield ‘evidence’ that, under them, education was ‘improving’.

It can be argued just how much secondary education has come to be dominated by the need to improve exam results. But there is no doubt about the trend. And there is massive anecdotal evidence. Teachers complain that their freedom to determine how and what to teach has increasingly been curtailed by the imposition of prescriptive direction issued from on high as to how to improve their pupils’ grades, even down to the micro level. One teacher told me of being required to insist that their pupils made sure that every paragraph of an essay should include at least one adverb (and then to mark them accordingly). No really. Another told me that she felt she was no longer a teacher in the way she understood the term, as someone there to inspire and stimulate her pupils and with freedom spontaneously to pursue whatever a particular class would throw up, but had become what she called a ‘processor’ of education, as though everyone involved – she, her pupils, the school itself – were just parts in an education production line.

Parents have said the same thing. One told me that when he turned up at a parents’ evening wanting to find out how his bright, lively, slightly chaotic thirteen-year-old daughter was getting on, he was met by a teacher with a spreadsheet. The parent wanted to find out what the teacher thought about what might be called the general wellbeing of his daughter including, of course, her academic aptitude, but also much else. Yet he couldn’t get the teacher off the subject of how it ought to be possible to get his daughter’s grades up from an average ‘B’ to an average ‘A’. The means suggested were utterly uninspiring. Unsurprisingly, his daughter subsequently complained how boring she had started to find school, and her father noted how this was making her lethargic about it.

And then there’s the third element in why it’s said children must get back to school: mental health. Older readers might raise an eyebrow at the very notion of mental health being an issue in relation to schoolchildren, except for the small minority there has always been who are palpably disturbed. After all, no one talked about mental health when they were at school. But there is reason to think that this is not just another example of the tendency in the contemporary world to medicalise behaviour we used to consider just part of being human.

A quite shocking report was published earlier this week. It was part of a survey of more than 10,000 young people conducted as part of the Millennium Cohort Study, (which follows the lives of almost twice the number born at the start of the millennium). It revealed that 7.4% of respondents had, by the age of seventeen, hurt themselves ‘on purpose in an attempt to end your life’. A total of 24.1% reported committing self-harm in the previous year, and 16.1% had experienced ‘high psychological distress’ in the previous thirty days. Of course there are many causes of such historically high levels of mental distress in teenagers (not least the iniquitous effect of social media). But in interpreting the results of the survey, Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chairwoman of the child and adolescent mental health faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said that education imposed ‘a huge stress’ on many pupils. For ‘education’ one might substitute ‘exams’.

Is this sacrifice of our children worth it? The answer must surely be ‘No’. We don’t need GCSEs. We certainly don’t need fifteen and sixteen-year-olds taking ten, eleven, twelve or even more of these exams, and certainly not simply so that the schools on whose treadmills they plod away each day can say: ‘Look what wonderful results we have, what a wonderful school we are…!’ We don’t need them, not only because the cost is proving so high, but also because it doesn’t get the poor kids who take them anywhere.

It is only habit that makes us focus on GCSE results as a measure of assessing how kids are doing, but there are much better ways. The most that’s needed at that age, in terms of national, standardised tests, is perhaps a couple of exams: one for literacy and the other for numeracy. All other assessment can be done continuously by teachers and their assessments should be sufficient to guide pupils where next to go, either to academic ‘A’ levels or to something more vocational (in that massively neglected sector of education called Further Education).

Think of the liberation dumping GCSEs would provide, for both pupils and teachers. They could both get back to what education should be about: stimulating and training young minds through adventure, discovery and, above all, the inspiration that comes from allowing a teacher to decide how and what to teach, and developing a relationship with their pupils that isn’t the relationship of a production line. As for parents’ being informed when choosing which school to send their children, wasn’t word-of-mouth and impressionistic reputation always more dependable than league tables anyway?

So let’s get kids back to school but not back to the treadmill of unnecessary, soul-destroying and ultimately education-destroying exams.

That, as you gather, is my view. But what’s yours? Let us know