Eton’s headmaster is right: we must break out of exams straitjacket

John White

In an article for Radio Times this week, Tony Little, headmaster of Eton, has called the examination system ‘archaic’. He sees it as “little changed from Victorian times”, a hindrance to collaborative working and to education for citizenship.

He is right on every count. As is now all too clear, the exam system does little to test deep understanding, blights the secondary school curriculum, causes students great anxiety, perverts the job of teaching, favours those families who can best manipulate school admission arrangements.

In Who needs examinations? A story of climbing ladders and dodging snakes – to be published by IOE Press next month, I ask why it is that despite these patent defects, we still cling to an institution which may have been all the rage in the 1860s but has been under fire in every generation since then.

It is ironic, if no less welcome, that the person at the apex of private education should lead the latest sortie. For it was the privately educated new middle classes of Victorian England who championed examinations over the patronage system of the landed establishment as a surer route for their children to a university place and a comfortable life. Soon joined by the top public schools, Eton included, middle class schools from Repton and Clifton down to local grammar schools made the examination system their own preserve. When elementary school students in the 1890s began to see its advantages for themselves, the shutters came quickly down. After 1904, the elementary schools that catered for over 80% of the age group were deliberately made an exam-free zone. This approach outlasted the end of fee-paying secondary education after 1944, when the new tripartite system excluded secondary moderns from the examination stakes until 1965.

For nearly a century, then, secondary school exams were the prerogative of those who could afford school fees. In the age of official full democracy in which we now live, we take it as read they are for everybody. Some 75% of students now get good GCSEs. The age of equality has arrived.

Or has it? The coming of league tables in 1992 has enabled families to identify local schools – private as well as state – with the best exam pedigrees. The private ones do well here, as even those among the sleepiest thirty years ago have worked hard since then to attract custom by glittering exam results. Better-off people can also maximize their chances of acceptance at a ‘good’ state school by moving into its catchment area, or, if a church school, discovering new talents for choral singing or campanology.

Tony Little is right about this Victorian relic. It has survived so long because it has been able to reshape itself – at least for public gaze – as a taken-for-granted institution of a democratic society, while at the same time trying to satisfy the very natural desire of those who have done well in life not to see their children doing worse.

It is time to jettison it before it takes us into what countries in east and south Asia often call their ‘examination hell’. A Chinese colleague and I have recently set up a small group of ‘International Critics of Examinations’, drawn from eighteen countries and from every continent. We hear reports of thirteen-hour days worked by students, the toll on family life, suicide rates among examinees, endless rote-learning, the frenzy and corruption of the annual Chinese school-leaving examination. We also hear of the ways in which the rich can work the system by moving into good school districts and employing private tutors.

Exams came to Japan and India from the USA and the UK, in the heyday of the West’s own love-affair with the institution in the late nineteenth century. Leading lights in these and similar countries are now looking for more humane alternatives.

Tony Little is right again. As he says, “here is the irony: we seem intent on creating the same straitjacket the Chinese are trying to wriggle out of.”

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Posted in Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
One comment on “Eton’s headmaster is right: we must break out of exams straitjacket
  1. […] welcome John White’s plan to make contact with Chinese educators uneasy about their ‘success’ on the PISA League Tables […]

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