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Saturday, 16 June, 2001, 01:00 GMT 02:00 UK
That's enough exam hurdles
exam room
Knuckling down to yet another test
By education correspondent Mike Baker

I seem to have spent a lot of time this past week with young people who are taking AS- and A-levels. My admiration for their fortitude has grown.

Just walking into the exam halls was enough to send a shiver of recollected tension down my spine - and it is many years since I last sat an examination in earnest. Such is the power of those deep-lurking memories.


Britons can now expect to spend longer in education than people in almost any other country. So that is an awful lot of examinations in a lifetime

As one head teacher commented to me, as we watched her students file into the sports hall for yet another AS exam, these tests bear no resemblance to anything these young people will ever do again in their working lives.

This is surely true. In employment there are many different tests of our ability and performance but none is anything much like sitting silently for hours at a time, over an intensive few weeks, in an over-heated exam hall, scribbling until our fingers are numb.

Yet we continue to pile on the tests and exams.

Out on our own

Now, I am not against all examinations. I do believe there is a place for formal, against-the-clock, written exams. The alternatives, continuous assessment and course-work, have their own, quite different, pressures.

But few other education systems around the world go for as heavy or as frequent a burden of external examinations as those in the UK.

As we learnt this week, Britons can now expect to spend longer in education than people in almost any other country. So that is an awful lot of examinations in a lifetime.

If most people are now staying at school or college for longer, do we really need so many exit-point examinations? With so few leaving full-time education at 16, does it make sense to ask everyone in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to take formal, national examinations then?

So I welcome the review of the AS-levels. A sensible outcome may be to limit the formal examinations to just those subjects which students intend to drop when they go on to the full A-level.

This way the broader curriculum would be maintained and, importantly, there would still be a half-way house qualification for the substantial minority of students who choose not to pursue some or all of their subjects right through to the full A-level.

International comparison

The big gain would be a big reduction in the number of examinations taken at the age of 17.

Of course, schools could still provide their own internal assessments of students' progress but they could do so without having to lie down in front of the juggernaut of external examinations which is currently obliterating much of the teaching time in the final half of the summer term.


The good news for those who leap all the teenage education hurdles and then university graduation is that they substantially boost their earning power

This week, as mentioned above, saw publication of a fascinating set of international comparisons from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

These suggested that, despite serious shortcomings in the past, Britain is now performing rather well in most areas of educational achievement.

According to the OECD, a UK five-year-old today can expect, over the course of their lifetime, to receive almost 19 years of full- or part-time education.

This is well ahead of the average for OECD countries - effectively the world's more advanced industrial nations - which stands at 16.7 years.

University participation

Much of the explanation for Britons' long period in education is the rapid rise in the proportion of young people who now stay on in education not only after 16, but also after 18. Indeed, the UK now leads the OECD member countries on university graduation rates.

For the first time a higher proportion of young people graduate from university in the UK (35.6%) than graduate from the USA (33.2%). This may be partly due to the shorter length of undergraduate degree courses in the UK, but the main factor is the much higher drop-out rate in the US.

The good news for those who leap all the teenage education hurdles and then university graduation is that they substantially boost their earning power and employability for the rest of their lives.

British university graduates earn 76% more than those who left school at 16 after gaining five good GCSE passes or the equivalents. Interestingly, this earnings premium for British graduates is considerably larger than for graduates in most other countries.

So, it pays to keep passing those exams. However, now that education is a long-distance race lasting 20 years for most people in the UK, isn't it time we removed some of the intermediate hurdles for fear of wearing the runners out before they reach the final tape?


Mike Baker welcomes your comments at educationnews@bbc.co.uk although he cannot always answer individual e-mails.

See also:

12 Jun 01 | UK Education
12 Jun 01 | UK Education
11 Jun 01 | UK Education
12 Jun 01 | UK Education
02 Jun 01 | UK Education
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