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Jack Butler


Gove's Stance on Exams Unfairly Hurts Any Students Who Don't Conform to His Standards

Posted: 21/06/2013 00:00

At the end of my second year at university (around six weeks ago now) I had to sit three examinations. These exams were all 100% of the module - the score I got for those papers determined my score for those modules, with nothing else going towards the mark. Two of those three exams were in modules that had ended at Christmas - I'd received no direct teaching in them for five months or so.

This struck me as a tad unfair, especially as one of the modules concerned literature written mainly in Middle English, and meant that I basically had to re-learn a whole new style of language in time for the test. I got decent enough marks (no, I won't give specifics) but I was still left with the feeling that this kind of assessment system was a little bit unfair.

This style of assessment is now going to become routine for GCSE students across England, with Michael Gove unveiling new exam-only qualifications for all subjects except for Science, which will still include some practical work. The idea is that this return to the old system will be more rigorous, forcing students to work harder and earn grades that are more reflective of their true abilities.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it is narrow-minded and places students into a system that is far too restrictive and compartmentalised. The assumption that examinations are always the fairest and most representative way of assessing a student's abilities at any one topic is laughable. It's been estimated by some commentators that as many as one in three children could be getting the wrong grade in examinations. That's debatable - estimates vary, like anything - but the notion of limiting children's educational futures to one paper, on one day, doesn't give enough students a fair chance to show their capabilities.

A couple of personal examples might illustrate the point better. When I was studying for GCSEs and A-Levels, I remember a friend of mine having a Mathematics exam in the afternoon. In the morning, he fell down some stairs, injuring his ankle. He was still 'fit-to-sit', technically speaking, but he left the exam with the belief that he hadn't been able to do himself justice - he was in pretty severe pain and I know he had to hobble to his seat with some difficulty. Another friend - who to this day has not let me forget this - was messed around when scheduling his mandatory fifteen-hour ICT controlled conditions coursework. This left him with absolutely no time to revise for another Mathematics exam. A student who had been getting As and Bs in practice exams scored seven out of seventy-five. The summer examination period, when I was at school, seemed to trigger different reactions among different people. Some students absolutely went to pieces in blind panic, walking into exam halls tearful and emotional. Others, who'd been used to doing essays and coursework with long periods of time in which to hone their work, weren't equipped to prepare properly for exams that often ran within one or two days of each other. The exam system didn't hamper everyone - some people sailed through with no trouble whatsoever - but there were always, every year, significant problems and grievances that meant perfectly capable students didn't get what they wanted or deserved.

GCSEs shouldn't be so fixed and arbitrary. They should be tooled towards helping children realise their potential. In the same way that students divide into 'academic' and 'practical' learners, they also perform differently according to the type of assessment. Mr. Gove appears to like examinations because they can be standardised, without room for separate interpretation, and are relatively absolute. This is fine for some - but it lets others down. Not all of us are able to do our absolute best at a set time, on a set date, on request. Some people need a gestation period, time to progress gradually and develop our ideas and knowledge in a cumulative fashion. This is the sort of learning that coursework rewards. Mr. Gove has criticised coursework for being too influenced by the teachers - yet the way to fix this is to adapt the way coursework is taught and marked, not by throwing it out of the curriculum altogether.

Exams are important and necessary, but they can't be the be-all and end-all for our education system. It's my belief that employers (for these changes, remember, are to equip our children with the tools to succeed in the global race) aren't just looking for employees who are happy existing in a pressure-cooker scenario, regurgitating facts as and when it's deemed necessary. They also want people who can work on projects over long stretches of time, building arguments progressively and thinking analytically. Controlled assessments like coursework are the best way to encourage this kind of education. Mr. Gove's reforms make this kind of learning seem invalid and inferior, but that just isn't the case.

If he wanted to really reform the GCSE system, perhaps he could give the students themselves a choice: engineer GCSEs that have either exam modules, coursework modules, or a mix of the two. That way, students can progress to the same qualification in different ways, highlighting their own specific attributes and showing future employers where their strengths lie. Surely this would be more beneficial in the long run than standardised, one-size-fits-all exams that consign anyone who doesn't fit the system to the scrapheap before they've even had a chance?