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Monday, 11 June, 2001, 09:52 GMT 10:52 UK
Exam expert says 'too much testing'
exam room
Nick Tate complains about constant exams
The man who ran England's qualifications authority when the changes to the A-level exams were devised says students now face "excessive" testing.

There has never been a single inquiry that looked at the whole picture

Nick Tate
Nick Tate, the former head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, says that the introduction of too many exams could threaten the overall quality of education.

Now head teacher of independent boarding school, Winchester College, Mr Tate said the accumulation over recent years of GCSEs, A-levels and now AS-levels and Key Skills had made youngsters probably the most tested in the world, sitting external exams in three successive years from 16 to 18.

"We have a level of external examination which is excessive, which is conveying to young people that the sole purpose of education is passing external exams for utilitarian reasons," Dr Tate told BBC News Online.

This was "potentially harmful to some of the fundamental purposes of education".

It was important to become an educated person, rather than simply "accumulating certificates".

Collective responsiblity

He said the two goals were not totally incompatible. But the system as it now stood made it difficult to convey the importance of things done in school which were not externally measured, such as Winchester's drama festival or extra teaching in arts, literature, philosophy and history.

nick tate
Nick Tate: Thinks a wide-ranging review is needed
Dr Tate said the problem had arisen over four or five years, under Conservative and Labour governments, and responsibility was shared also by various quangos and the Dearing inquiry in 1996, which recommended broadening the sixth form curriculum.

"People didn't look at the whole picture," he said. "There has never been a single inquiry that looked at the whole picture."

He now thinks there should be an inquiry which assessed the system of exams which applies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This inquiry probably could not begin for another year, when the changes had fully worked through the system to the end of the second year of sixth form study, Dr Tate said.

GCSE future

It would have to consider the future of GCSEs - no longer the "school leaving exam" for most students.

"But there are no simple solutions because you are catering for very different categories of pupils - some are unlikely to get beyond GCSE and need some form of terminal examination."

The changes to A-levels were intended to broaden the sixth form curriculum, to stop students specialising too early, typically in three subjects.

The revised AS-level, replacing the Advanced Supplementary exam, was one of the main recommendations arising from Lord Dearing's review of qualifications for 16 to 19 year olds.

The intention is that students should take four or even five subjects at AS-level (Advanced Subsidiary) in the first year, specialising in the second.

Whether they are tested on those in the first or second years is optional, but most schools and colleges seem to have opted for first year exams, Winchester among them.

A notable exception in the state sector is the London Oratory, which the prime minister's sons attend.


Schools and colleges - and most of all, students - have been complaining about the resultant increased workload and exam pressure in the 12th year of schooling, immediately after the GCSE year.

The National Association of Head Teachers has demanded an inquiry into the changes.

The new Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, said in a BBC News Online election forum: "I think it has meant that sixth formers work harder."

She said she thought the result would be a broader curriculum that would prepare people better for work or university.

But she said the impact would be monitored.

"It's not good spending money and introducing these innovations unless we assess the impact of them, and I'm sure - without knowing the details of the monitoring exercise - that feedback from pupils and students will be a very important part of that."

The BBC's James Westhead
"An entire new tier of exams"
Nick Tate, head of Winchester College
"The problem is the total amount of examining schools now have to go through"
AS-level student Rosie Williams
gives her response to the exams
See also:

06 Jun 01 | UK Education
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