The headmaster of Eton may be right but so what?

Michael Young

I welcome John White’s plan to make contact with Chinese educators uneasy about their ‘success’ on the PISA League Tables and look forward to his next IOE blog reporting his discussions.

However, the fact that the headmaster of Eton attacks our examination system as archaic – something virtually everyone working in the public sector of education knows all too well – is hardly news. What really would be news would be if Eton decided to stop entering pupils for any public examinations until the system was reformed. Then, especially if a number of the other elite schools followed suit, we might get a Royal Commission with the remit to examine both why such an anti-educational system of examinations had emerged and what might be the alternatives.

No complex modern education system could exist without some form of examination system. Furthermore, it should be as fair as possible as a guide to those who have to select students for either jobs or university places and at the same time provide reliable feedback to teachers and students about their achievements.

The problem is that the relationships between public examinations, the curriculum (which defines the purposes of education), and the professional work of teachers, have become grossly distorted. Instead of examinations guiding teachers and students and providing feedback on the curriculum, they have come to replace the curriculum in deciding what is taught and how, and to be a major control force over teachers’ pedagogy and student learning. Taken to its limits, this turns teachers into technicians and all but the very highest achieving students into exam fodder, those that do not give up.

Unless any debate about our examination system begins with asking how we can shift towards a curriculum-led rather than an examination-led system, critiques, such as that of Eton’s headmaster, whose school sits at the pinnacle of the system he depicts as ‘archaic’, only deflect us from tackling its fundamental problems.


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Posted in Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
4 comments on “The headmaster of Eton may be right but so what?
  1. John White says:

    Is it true that ‘no complex modern education system could exist without some form of examination system’? It may depend on what Michael Young is writing into this. Does an examination system include student records of achievement? I might agree with his statement, if so.

    I agree wholeheartedly that what schools teach should not be driven by examinations as we know them. Alison Wolf is right in the Guardian today
    that we need ‘a broad and mandatory core of general education for teenagers’, but dead wrong in her view that the new GCSE helps to secure this. My view is that we need an aims-led school education, not the curriculum-led one that Michael favours, if, as he has argued elsewhere, this is to take as its starting point a range of knowledge-orientated subjects. We need something broader than this.

    Finally, a small correction about ICE, the group of International Critics of Examinations that I have set up with a colleague from Wuhan, China. Its Chinese members are not exercised about PISA, since China, unlike Shanghai, does not participate in this. Their plaint is often about the dreaded gaokao examination taken by school-leavers aiming at a university place. See

  2. Ian Lynch says:

    I have the solution and it was tested in an Ofqual inspection yesterday and came through unscathed 🙂

  3. Ian Lynch says:

    Rationale, and practical implementation is documented at I should have said “a” solution rather than “the” solution as there could be others but within the current structural constraints feedback seems to be that this is working as intended.

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