There Is More to Education Than Exams

By Greene, Tom | The Independent (London, England), August 17, 2006 | Go to article overview
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There Is More to Education Than Exams

Greene, Tom, The Independent (London, England)

Today represents the end of a journey from hours (or not) of revision to a single capitalised letter with implications for the future. It's results day! For many students it brings a reality check to a summer of post-exam indulgence, and for everyone else the annual Rumble in the Jungle over exam results begins.

In the red corner is Chris Wood-head, the former chief inspector of schools. On Monday he said that GCSEs and A-levels had become "less challenging" and "not fit for purpose". Squaring up to him in the blue corner is School's Minister Jim Knight - "This, like many myths surrounding the exams, is nonsense."

The argument is once again set - ex-school inspector thinks standards are slipping, present government official thinks the kids are doing just fine. The truth is that no conscious effort is being made to make exams easier or harder - they are just having to adapt to the formidable machine that the exam marking system has become. Exam marking is no longer a service to the education system - the education system is a service to it.

Full marks to the UK's largest exam body - Edexcel - for perfectly proving this point. Last year, it was revealed that Edexcel Religious Studies scripts were being marked by "unqualified office staff" and students. Edexcel maintained its innocence, claiming that through a shortage of qualified examiners, students and office staff only checked the answers to very simple questions and that they were "maintaining standards".

That is surely not the point. No-body is doubting whether students and office staff are capable of marking exams -just that if the post boy can mark the answers, is there any point in setting the exam at all? Is not the shortage of examiners determining changes in exams themselves?

The AS/A2 system introduced in 2001/2 has resulted in more exams than ever, which in turn means that time at school is spent mostly preparing for exams. With the old system of a single exam at the end of two years of sixth form, teachers could afford to go off on a tangent if interesting class discussion took them there' with AS exams, every lesson is crucial. Lower Sixth (year 12) is now geared to the exam at the end of the year. Let's not get started on what's in store for year 13: If it's not AS retakes, it's A2 modules.

After every round of exams the whole marking machine creaks back into action: examiners have to attend a standardised meeting where moderators (or "Team Leaders") discuss specific papers and check examiners marking of sample scripts. Moderation continues when marking begins as example papers are scrutinised before the examiners' marks are turned into fully-fledged grades.

If exams are to become more challenging, creativity and ingenuity will have to squeeze in alongside mark schemes and moderation.

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