Exams work

10 June 2009
The Evening Standard

My pupil Mark is proof that exams work. With a shock of red hair and acne to match, he was a loud, brash fourteen-year-old. In his Key Stage 3 English tests, which all Year 9 pupils take in May, he scored a miserable level 4. But when I taught him the next year, he got his head down, stopped playing the fool, and achieved C grades in both his English and English Literature GCSEs. I know the horror of his poor Key Stage 3 English result motivated Mark to improve.

The General Teaching Council (GTC), an influential regulatory body for teachers, has said it wants to scrap such tests for under-16s. If it had its way, pupils like Mark wouldn’t have to endure what it terms the “added stress” of government tests. Mark would have been able to disrupt lessons without ever enduring the humiliation of doing badly in an exam.

Teachers like me, too, might be better off – because no one would find about pupils like Mark and the thousands like him who are falling behind. And at the moment, the statistics that external tests generate are utterly damning for both the profession and the government.

Government figures published this April show that one in four pupils is failing to make progress – or is actually getting worse – in key subjects during their first three years at secondary school. Almost 150,000 pupils make no progress in science, while 85,000 fail to improve their grades in English and 30,000 in maths. GCSE results show that half of 16-year-olds leave school without being properly literate or numerate.

This is a stark illustration of the Government’s failure to make much difference to stubbornly poor results at secondary school. But raising standards must be ministers’ – and teachers’ – central task. And exams are a key part of it.

Many children do find exams stressful. In the last few weeks, I have been approached by pupils who appeared to be hyperventilating at the thought of their English GCSEs. But this stress is productive. My revision lessons are some of my best, because the exam-induced adrenaline racing through my pupils’ veins means they are really tuned in.

Many get the results they want, but for those who don’t, it can be bitterly disappointed. Last summer I had to counsel a number of sobbing pupils and stunned parents. But the system is set up so that pupils can re-take important exams. The disappointment, although nasty at the time, is genuinely character building.

Our children are far too over-protected nowadays, and without exams, they would never be allowed to experience failure. The General Teaching Council and a large swathe of our educational establishment want to wrap our children up in cotton wool and never expose them to failure. Precisely the opposite is the case: children may moan about it, but they find the risk and ‘danger’ of exams exciting.

But exams also provide crucial information about whether a child has the basics or not – and whether they are improving at the right rate. My student Tanya scored a Level 5 at Key Stage 2 in English and then the same again at Key Stage 3. She’d actually slightly regressed during secondary school. It didn’t reflect well on either her or myself as her teacher, but the test score told us a stark truth: her English was declining.

I still have her exercise book with her essay on Macbeth from Year 9 because it is so unintentionally hilarious. One classic sentence reads: “McBeth aint bovvered when his wife kills herslf and keeps beleiveing lifes a drag.” That Level 5 was too generous: the exam system, if anything, over-inflates the results.

There’s a more fundamental point here about driving up standards. Both pupils mentioned, Tanya and Mark, had really suffered when they made the transition from primary to secondary school. At primary school, they’d been taught mostly by one teacher who had drilled them in the basics. At secondary school, they’d felt swamped by the sheer size of the place and number of different subjects. They weren’t closely monitored, except when they got into trouble.

Far too many children regress in the first years of secondary school for these same reasons. This leads to them misbehaving on a massive scale. A survey in April showed that temporary exclusions are running at nearly 10 per cent of pupils in those secondary schools with more than 1,000 pupils, compared with three per cent in those with 1,000 or fewer children. Most parents want their children to go to smaller schools – and they are right in their instincts.

In the long term, we are only going to get the kind of radical improvement in standards that the Government promised and that we’re still waiting for if we have radical reform. I believe a “voucher” system whereby parents are given a voucher worth the price of their child’s education – £10,000 per year in some areas – to “spend” where they want, would lead to more smaller schools being set up. With a free market in play, there would be competition in the system and the big, monolithic schools would either shape up or go out of business.

Of course a voucher system would take years to set up and run properly. But if the Government wants to significantly raise standards more immediately, within the existing system, it should beef up the time the basics get in secondary school, focussing on literacy – especially grammar, spelling and punctuation – and numeracy.

It would help both children and parents a lot if the Government introduced standard textbooks in these areas. These should be free for every school year, so that children could take them home and look at them with their parents. At the moment, parents don’t have a clue about what goes on in school or what sort of standard their children should be achieving in English and Maths. Instead, commercial textbook publishers have a field day putting out all sorts of conflicting material.

We need more clarity all round: uniform textbooks for every child, a more coherent curriculum and smaller, more human-sized secondary schools – ones that can concentrate especially on the transition from primary school. We can drive up standards by doing some of those things now, even if radical change will take longer. But don’t blame tests. Far from being the problem at the moment, our exam system is the only thing that stands between our school children and educational total disaster.

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