What are exams for? Okay, you can turn over your paper now…

by Stephen Tall on June 22, 2012

Last weekend, I sat a GCSE ‘mock’ exam. I haven’t had my mark back yet, but I think I did okay.

Of course, this was just the foundation tier exam so even if I score top marks the maximum grade I’ll receive is a C. Fortunately my teacher thinks I’ve got the ability to progress to sit the higher tier exam, which means — if I actually buckle down to learning my Spanish verbs and am a little less distracted by blogging — I could get an A* grade.

I sat my first GCSE in 1992, five years after the first guinea-pig cohort. It was a Latin exam. My state school didn’t offer the subject — they didn’t offer English Literature GCSE either — so I studied Latin with a private tutor, and did EngLit under my own steam.

My Latin tutor, Mr Lally, was (still is) a teacher at the near-by independent Merchant Taylors’ School in Liverpool, and together we worked through a mix of past O-Level and GCSE papers. I remember at the time feeling relieved I was sitting the GCSEs: quite simply, they were easier.

I passed my Latin GCSE with an A grade (the A* was a later invention) without once having to write a sentence in an exam in Latin itself, something which would have been impossible at O-Level. All I had to do was learn how to recognise the ablative absolute without needing to work out how to construct it.

In saying GCSE exams are easier than O-Levels, we need to recognise the differences. GCSE exams are for all pupils, O-Levels were sat only by the top one-fifth of pupils. Perhaps more significant, GCSE was an attempt — and not one without merit — to recognise that learning is about more than just being good at exams.

At its best, modular assessments allowed a layering of knowledge and the chance to cement pupils’ learning progress. In the same way, coursework allowed for pupils to practise and be assessed on their ability to construct longer essays, or undertake practical pieces of work.

There has been an understandable backlash against this, with pupils, parents and schools — especially the more middle-class ones — learning to game the system made possible by these more progressive learning approaches. No-one likes exams, but at least everyone sits them under the same conditions.

There is an important national debate to be had about what we want exams to do. Should all children sit one exam rather than the two-tier splits — CSE/O-Level or the Foundation/Higher split at GCSE — we are used to? If yes, are we comfortable with many more children attaining below a C-grade than now? If no, who makes the decision, and when, about which exams pupils will sit that will determine their grade potential? This is a debate liberals should welcome.