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We try to fix too many social problems through exams

Stress mounts as the day nears. Rui Vieira/PA Archive

This year’s GCSE results day is predicted to be “chaos” if recent exam reforms cause large fluctuations in students’ grades. Exam boards, teachers and teacher unions are talking of “nervousness”, “turbulence” and “instability” surrounding the results.

All this follows after commentators pored over the recent A Level results, weighing up the minutiae of percentage point changes in pass rates, the number of boys and girls taking this and that subject and who’s going to what university. It seems that every aspect of society can be analysed through exam results – from the state of the economy and jobs, to issues of race, class and sex.

Emotional rollercoaster

If the predictions of chaos are right, we may well get much of the same after the GCSE results are published. But you have to ask: isn’t all this commentary on examinations a little bit excessive? Education is important but it’s not that important.

I overheard a mother last week congratulating her son in the street on his obviously excellent A Level results: “You will achieve so much!” she said, and then added: “I think I am going to cry!” This struck me as a bit melodramatic, if understandable. Exam results are personal things for pupils and their mothers may well have great hopes for them. But the annual national response to exam results now seems to be like a mother’s.

Delight abounds when results are going up and national hopes rise but, if they go down, there is uncertainty and turbulence and national hopes dip with them. We are too involved in our children’s results. It’s time to let go.

Proxy for social problem-solving

A criticism that I and others have made is that recent governments have seen education as the place to engage in social engineering to solve a range of social and political problems. These include everything from radicalisation, obesity, homophobia, smoking, binge drinking, drug taking, criminality, anti-social behaviour and saving the planet.

That strategy, which results from the inability of politicians to resolve those problems in the grown-up world, has led to education being seen as more important than it is. The over-emphasis on qualifications as a way of making the UK more globally competitive does the same thing.

Although all of this may seem sensible to those who are fond of homilies like “the children are our future”, it is really a cop out for adults escaping responsibility by attempting to solve today’s urgent problems through children. The obsession with social engineering may be a face-saving substitute for hapless politicians but it is a destructive force for education.

Stricter curriculum

Education and the examination results that follow from it should be about what a pupil has gained in terms of knowledge and understanding. That’s all. If a pupil does well or badly it is not the beginning or the end of their world, even if it feels as if it is for a while. If UK examination results dip or descend into chaos, it is not the collapse of society as we know it. Just as years of constant improvement in results didn’t make for a better Britain in the past.

Politicians and commentators, who go on and on about aspects of the examination system that reflects their wider social and political concerns, should become more serious about education – then pupils’ examination results will improve as a consequence.

Tinkering with the marks teachers give students for speaking and listening in English, toughening up the geography curriculum, encouraging the take up of traditional subjects and other changes are welcome but they reflect a timid approach to education that disadvantages all children.

A far braver and better approach would be to make a knowledge-based curriculum (separate sciences, modern foreign languages, mathematics, history, English language and literature, geography and even Latin) mandatory in all schools. It is not going to happen. The reforms begun by the former secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, barely scrape the surface.

The first step towards the removal of the current timidity in educational reform would require politicians, education experts and media commentators to stop seeing examination results as the focus of other concerns and get back to the idea that schools and examinations are about individual pupils’ knowledge and understanding and nothing more.

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