Family & Education

Our substandard exam system should be overhauled

This summer's exam fiasco only highlights the need to take a fresh look at what we want from our schools


There are many different types of grades for GCSEs and A-levels. There are target grades, predicted grades, mock grades, students’ anticipated grades, parents’ aspirational grades (oy!) and then the actual grade.

These grades invariably differ and can fluctuate dependent on the studiousness of the candidate or indeed who the parent is boasting to.

This summer’s results debacle introduced us to the notion that in addition to the actual grade is the final grade, which appeared to have been based on a selection of the best of the above. In the space of a few days, algorithms went from hero to villain and we saw honest schools disadvantaged while schools that overestimated predicted grades rewarded with record results.

This year heralds the 70th year for A-levels. It gives pause for thought that they were instigated when King George VI was our monarch and you needed a ration book to buy food. People may see these exams as a rite of passage, but the world has changed enormously over this period. We have to ask whether these exams really are fit for purpose.

It is hard to justify how students can be tested on how to calculate the area of a rhombus but have no inkling of what their take home pay would be after the deduction of tax and national insurance. Are we preparing our students for the workplace and is a three hour paper a meaningful way of assessing and reflecting the outcomes of 14 years of education?

The league tables exacerbate the problem. Across the country schools are vying for the top slots and too many are playing the system and limiting the opportunities of weaker students so as to ensure higher outcomes for the schools.

Can the totality of a school’s educational provision really be reflected in the percentage of students achieving top grades?

Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment and we are judged as a whole person with all our actions considered, as well as our relationship with God and our attitudes to one another. I am sorry to inform you that, in contrast to A-levels, there is no option to select our three best aspects and disregard everything else.

Rosh Hashanah is also a time to press pause, consider our actions and reassess our priorities. Perhaps this year is the ideal opportunity for us to take a moment to look again at our exam system. We may not have all the answers but we cannot allow a substandard system of assessment to be perpetuated for another 70 years.

Rather than a horse race, education should be about building basic competencies across a broad range of skills and giving students the foundation on which to develop and excel in areas best suited to their abilities. We must of course ensure that knowledge and analytical skills are embedded within the curriculum and that the best of our current provision is included in any future models.

However, we can do far more, and our schools and youth groups are a great example of the multiple enrichment opportunities that are so important in developing our children. There may still be a role for formal exams which would form part of the wealth of learning experiences, all of which, could be recorded in a student’s individualised portfolio, which could then be used for applications to universities and for future employers.

Despite or perhaps because of the challenges of this past year, this is an opportune time for us to reconsider what outcomes we really want from our schools, how these can best be delivered and how to most effectively appraise and celebrate all the achievements of our children.

Shanah tovah and may this be a year where our children’s outcomes surpass even parental expectations!

Rabbi Meyer is executive director of Pajes

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