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Alex Fisher: The public examination system needs urgent reform

Picture 18 Alex Fisher is Press and Media Officer to Ben Jeffreys, Conservative PPC for Cheadle.

David Cameron has repeatedly reinforced the need to move from a health service which is judged by process-based targets, such as waiting times in A&E, to one judged by its results; whether patients are surviving from conditions and living longer. Such an approach is right for the NHS, where outcome is everything, and high-quality care futile if it doesn’t achieve results.

But the flaws in our educational system are not caused by a lack of focus on results. Rather, they are the product of a philosophy rooted in statistics and perceived outcome at the expense of almost anything else. I have recently completed my A-Levels and was privileged to attend a first-rate independent school, where intellectual curiosity was cherished. This allowed the school to provide a broad experience that prepared its charges for the world outside, as well as achieving commendable examination results.

Nevertheless, no institution is entirely protected from the rigid constrains imposed by a G.C.S.E. or A-Level syllabus. These are, in the most case, vast documents which lay out in detail what ‘should’ be taught; competing exam boards prepare alternatives and many schools simply look for the option which will provide their students with the highest grades, which is understandable when teachers know that if they don’t choose that option, others will, causing their own school to fall in the league tables and potentially resulting in missed university offers from the sixth form.

It is a sad reality that an examination offered by one exam board might have a much lower pass rate than that provided by another. This situation is exacerbated by the prevalence of the ‘uniform mark scale,’ (UMS,) which is designed to ensure that each year’s examinations are ‘consistent’ – in short, real marks are scaled up or down to ensure that the percentage of entrants being awarded each grade is roughly the same as it was the year before. For example, in my own subjects, Latin and Greek, a paper of very similar difficulty was set by the OCR examining body in 2008. In Latin the required mark for an A was only 82 out of 120; in Greek it was a rather more demanding 96.

So why was there such a disparity, despite the similarity in the style and content of the papers? Exam boards never release the exact reasons for their grade boundaries, but one can surmise that the quality of candidates in the Greek examination was particularly high, as shown by the consistently high percentage of A grades awarded in the subject, whereas it was less so in Latin. A pupil providing submissions of the same quality in both examinations would have received far more credit for their work in Latin than in Greek; simply in order to make the exam board’s figures look right.

These rarely publicised statistics lie at the heart of educational reality in modern British schools; the ceaseless pursuit of consistency has achieved nothing apart from a cleverly manipulated set of figures, which is, in reality, the product of inconsistency.  This can foster a sense of insecurity amongst those preparing students for examinations as they seek to ensure that the work produced is of a good enough standard that it will be rewarded regardless of how the exam boards choose to manipulate their grade boundaries this year.

Our examination system needs urgent reform in order that the many excellent teachers who seek to cultivate a genuine interest in their subject amongst students are rewarded for their actions, instead of being penalised for not paying enough attention to the minutiae of this year’s syllabus. Aerosmith told us that life was a journey, not a destination; when the same logic flows through to the way we run our schools, we will then, and only then, have a system in which we can take genuine pride.


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