It is that time of year again. The summer is the exam season and it is also the time for new proposals regarding the examination system. This time it is Tristram Hunt, Labour's education spokesman who says that, had Labour taken power, he would have wanted to end the system of GCSEs. That would have removed exam pressure from sixteen-year-olds and helped to bridge the division between technical and academic qualifications. His plans contrast with those of Michael Gove, formerly the Conservative Education Secretary, who was also for scrapping GCSEs but would then have replaced them with other exams. Mr Gove's proposals were subsequently dropped.
The British exam system has developed into its present form as a result of pressures from different constituencies. Employers are keen for a system which supplies reliable information about applicants for jobs. A-levels are said to do that - assuming particular importance as university degrees have proliferated and become less effective as "brain graders". Universities are keen to get information about candidates early rather than having to rely too heavily on predicted results. That is why they find the AS system helpful. GCSEs are important to those whose academic abilities will not take them on to study at sixth form level. At least it enables them to get some runs on the board.
The result of all this is that the children, who do not have much of a say in the debate, are faced with exams year after relentless year. Lost is the freedom of the first year of sixth form when the remoteness of A-levels allowed them to focus on sport, drama, music, hobbies, reading thrillers, partying and the general process of growing up. Relax at that stage and you could have poor ASs to put in front of the University admission officers Relax a year later and you will not make the predicted grades you need to take up your place. Parents look on with appalled amazement
If one clear message comes out of the gloom, it is the need to look again at the system and to do so with the interests of the children at the forefront. In the end it isn't the testing that is important but educating children and allowing them to develop and mature. If we impede that by over testing them we have clearly got things the wrong way round.
Mr Hunt suggested that his changes that might have taken a decade and for once that is a good thing rather than a bad one. We really do not need more patch and mend and, if it takes time to reform the examination system, then that is a price worth paying for a good outcome. Actually it isn't just that the examination system that needs looking at but also the balance of the syllabus at each stage. Should British secondary education be wider? Do we turn out too many mathematicians who are not fully literate? too many English students who cannot add? If it is true that a second rate idea well expressed will generally beat a good idea poorly expressed, how does our very specialised system help our scientists to make their case?
Although one would dearly love to see issues of this sort taken out of the political arena, that is not a particularly easy thing to do because different parts of the community have different priorities. Some are keen that the system encourages the ablest children to excel. How else can Britain deal with international competition? Others are keen to bridge the gap between the academic and non-academic child. How can you have one nation if you make distinctions at the age of sixteen? Some believe that the function of education is to prepare for the practicalities of life. Others believe that it is the only opportunity to obtain an academic foundation and that people will learn about practicality later on. There are plenty of different views and with limits to time and resources there is inevitably competition between them. Nonetheless it does seem worth trying to develop a bipartisan approach, focusing perhaps on the aim of enabling each child to develop its abilities as far as it can and ignoring the cries of the social engineers, elitists, anti-elitist, and all the rest of those with other agendas.
The minister, Nicky Morgan needs to reach out to the other parties over this to see how much can be achieved. Perhaps a general agreement is too much to hope for but if it was only possible to reach a consensus on how to cut the exam burden so that children can enjoy their school days - well. that in itself would be something worthwhile.