This month’s OECD report has linked the poor literacy and numeracy skills of our 16-24 olds, compared with those in other countries, with a lower level of social mobility. One factor in holding back social mobility has been the way in which the more affluent have used school examinations to entrench their dominance in higher education and in professional jobs.
A way of countering this dominance would be to remove its instruments: school exams themselves. These may have made sense when they first became popular around the 1850s, but do they in 2013?
They made sense then for the rising middle classes who wanted their sons to have interesting careers. Before that, patronage had been the norm. Exams were held to provide a fairer and more objective alternative.
Are they worth retaining now? Social unfairnesses apart, we know what an obstacle they are to a worthwhile education for students in their last years at school. We know about the anxiety they cause, the overwork, the narrowing of the curriculum, the teaching to the test, the training in question-spotting, examiner-bluffing and other morally dubious habits.
What do schools get out of examinations? Universities and employers are the beneficiaries. Schools are their handmaidens, relieving them of work and expense. Apart from kudos for some in the league tables, schools get mainly grief.
Imagine a world without GCSEs and A levels. How much broader and richer education could become! The school could come back to its proper task of creating in every school leaver a passion for learning – rather than hacked-off attitudes among its exam failures and instrumental attitudes to learning among its successes.
Would anything be lost in an exam-free régime? What about selecting candidates for higher or further education and employment? We need to probe imaginative alternatives. Colleges and employers should take the lead on devising their own filtering devices, as long as these do not disadvantage less privileged applicants. But schools can also play a part.
The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the growth of records of achievement, or student profiles. These enabled schools to provide ongoing accounts of progress in different areas. They were not tied to the framework of discrete subjects within which examinations tend to be conducted. They recorded progress on non-academic fronts, including practical and out-of-class activities, within the school and outside.
In those days profiling existed alongside conventional examinations. It could now replace them. It could give every school leaver a record of his or her all-round attainments, presentable both to other educational establishments and to employers. Our new digital age has opened wider horizons, with children and parents as well as teachers contributing to web-based records, not only with text but also with still and moving images. This already happens in enlightened schools.
I know all this is anathema to those who will tell us what a subjective, corruption-prone system profiling is. Examinations are so much fairer, so much more accurate in their assessments. This is why colleges and employers trust them – and why they have for over a century provided a ladder for young people from all social classes to reach the top.
We should not accept this. Examining something is submitting it to thorough investigation. Do the minutes an examiner allots, say, to a paper on Europe since 1815 really add up to an examination? Digital cumulative records can give a much fuller picture; and of the student not only as a lone learner, but also as a co-worker – and not only in this area or that, but also as a whole person. And who is to say that there are no ways of coping with teacher bias – or, indeed, other problems around profiling?
The ladder argument raises another point. The more affluent have long accepted examinations as their route to university and professional jobs. They have been happy, at the same time, with some poorer but bright youngsters joining them. The ladder is said to provide equality of opportunity.
But the story says nothing about equipping everyone for a decent life. The ladder for the lucky ones, too, has always been propped up against a smart building with escalators inside to take the affluent up to the upper storeys. Michael Gove’s policy on examinations has upgraded the escalators and made the ladder more rickety.
Examinations are an excellent device for keeping a hierarchical social order more or less intact. If we are more interested in introducing every young person to the delights and rewards of learning, we have to look elsewhere.