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Last Updated: Friday, 24 August 2007, 23:04 GMT 00:04 UK
Stop harking back to the past
Mike Baker byline graphic
By Mike Baker

Students opening exam results
Are exams equipping students with 'skills for life'?
The award for the year's most pointless activity must surely go to those commentators who, this August like most others, tried to prove that today's exams are easier than they were in the past.

Why is it that we are so obsessed with asking whether today's exams match the standards of those taken 20 or 40 years ago?

I have not yet come across any other country that so regularly beats itself up in this way.

What matters is whether exams are doing the job we need them to do today and, as far as we can predict it, in the future.

This, of course, is not to say that educational standards don't matter. Far from it. Nor that the examination system is perfect. But we should be looking forwards, not backwards.

We do, after all, live in 2007 not 1987 or 1967. Just think about this: today's school leavers are likely still to be workers in the economy of 2037 or 2047.

Are today's examinations fit for current purpose?

They may still need the social, personal and technological skills to make the most of society in 2057, when we hope they will be embarked on a lengthy, active and fulfilling retirement.

So the key question is not "are standards as high as they used to be?" but "are today's examinations fit for current purpose?"

In short, are they helping young people with the process of acquiring the knowledge and skills they will need for the next 40 or 50 years?

And to answer that we need to make some predictions about the future. One that seems fairly easy to make is that we will have to cope with rapid, especially technological, change and we will need constantly to update our skills.

Quota system

So the crucial first test for examinations is that they should test candidates' skills, and their ability to find, sift and assess information, as much as, if not more than, testing their recall of knowledge that was considered important in the past.

The second is that they should not be seen as the terminal point in any individual's education.

No-one can afford to stop learning at 16 or 18. For many, that further learning will be practical, technical or vocational rather than academic. But they should not be put off learning.

So the last thing we need is a return to the school examination system that existed until the late 1980s when only a set quota of students could get pass grades.

That made sense when the original purpose of the old O and A-levels was to filter out all but the small minority who were considered suitable to continue with education.

The rest were effectively rejects. The message for them was simple: learning is not for you. Is that what we want today?

"Ah", but I hear some people saying, "exams are also about sorting the best from the rest".

Yes, indeed, colleges, universities and employers do need examinations to help them choose between applicants.

But that does not require that we have an exam system that is preserved in aspic, in which an A grade is worth exactly the same now as it was 20 years ago.

Strengths and weaknesses

Employers and universities are mostly choosing between candidates who took examinations at roughly the same period.

So what matters is that there is scope for discrimination between grades not that they can be equated with what people did a generation earlier.

A further purpose of examinations is to show individuals what they are good at and what they are not so good at, in other words to help indicate where their capabilities lie.

Exam grades are all about helping to identify strengths and weaknesses, about guidance towards further learning and future pathways

If this all sounds a bit abstract, then let's try how it feels in particular cases.

Let's say you are a parent. Your child has worked hard to achieve a couple of Bs and a fistful of Cs and Ds at GCSE.

Do you say to them: "In my day, a grade C was something, but today they're not worth much, you might as well give up?"

Of course you don't - although that's the message they get from parts of the media and from some employer organisations. First of all you assess whether they have worked hard and done as well as they could have done.

If they have, then you congratulate them and you use this as a basis to build on, hoping they will be encouraged to continue learning, rather than being demoralised by their performance relative to others.

You then look at the relative grades and start to get some idea about where their strengths and weaknesses lie. The B grades will be some indication.


It may be that this is the time to head towards the sciences rather than the arts, or towards practical and vocational subjects rather than the purely academic.

It may also be that the grade Ds come in maths and English. Whether that represents hard work or slackness, these grades indicate a need to improve these skills because literacy and numeracy skills will be essential for the future.

So exam grades are all about helping to identify strengths and weaknesses, about guidance towards further learning and future pathways. They are about the here and now.

So, questions about how today's examination results compare with the past are, frankly, of little relevance.

If, as I suspect, commentators are more interested in judging the system as a whole then they need a different measure than public examinations.

Because any such measure would have to be fixed and unchanging and we simply cannot afford to have examinations that stand still as they would be a block on curriculum reform.

If we want to know how governments or school systems are doing in, say, a certain area of mathematics or literacy then the same test can be applied to a small, but representative, sample of the school population each year.

That could then be the focus of debate about performance over time. The exams taken by almost all young people are too important for that: they are about the future - their future - not the past.

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