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.