Family & Education

School report: Exams are a burden that our children don’t need

Present system is out of date and needs an overhaul. Urgently.


In 2019, Robert Halfon, now the Minister for Higher Education, called for GCSEs and A-Levels to be abolished. Lord Baker, who introduced the exams as Education Secretary in the 1980s, more recently said “the days of GCSEs are numbered”. Exams are out of date and need an overhaul. Urgently.

Assessing education is crucial and exams form a part of that. Developing a strong work ethic and analytical skills are crucial and exams form part of that. But our English didactic over-reliance and over-focus on exams as the hallmark of our schooling system no longer fits the 21st century.

If exam subjects are a gateway to the world of work, that world has changed. Success in the job market is not a product of the subjects learnt at A-level o GCSEs —there are core skills that create work success that schools do not focus owing to exam pressures.

Running courses on resilience, self-esteem, communication, understanding others, decision-making and choosing priorities, teamwork, pitching for funding for projects are some of the skills that are critical in life and most workplaces but are not taught at school.

If our workplaces are increasingly taking into account work-life balance, why are our schools not adapting in the same way?

According to a 2014 study, seven in ten high school girls believe that they are not good enough or don’t measure up in some way, including their looks, performance in school and relationships with friends and family members.

Therese Bochard in a 2014 study claimed that 20 per cent of teens will experience depression before adulthood.

Dealing with these issues (preferably preventatively) in schools would be far more fitting and a better long-term investment that an extra A-level.

Not every child is wired for exams. Sitting exams requires exam technique, a good deal of stress and mostly a good memory too. Some students just aren’t programmed for that, no matter how hard they try. Why should one’s success over two years be measured by performance over a couple of intense weeks at the end?

I’d argue instead for a move towards the American system of a grade figure, calculated by constant (sometimes automatic) assessment which is based on attendance, homework, coursework, teacher assessment of progress and some test days too.

Schools and education are so much more than just studying subjects for exams. Why teach children that education means being part of a system that can often be narrow, doesn’t take into account personal progress and doesn’t work for many? And why create a huge amount of stress doing that?

Yes, we need frameworks and grading, but education is about developing a child and their skills, not about straightjacketing them.

In the words of my son’s school after some core exams: “Please do share these results with your son and celebrate his achievements.

"Whether or not his results are what you and your and he may have hoped for, we can assure you that he has worked hard this year, he has made good progress and he can and should be very proud of his achievement. He deserves to celebrate this.”

Above all, remember that the SAT results do not represent in any sense your child’s worth.

They don’t show how he cares for others, or helps friends when they need him. They don’t give marks for his good middot [attributes} or the effort and self-discipline put into performing mitzvot. No grade or mark in a test can reflect his sincerity in tefillah.

They don’t give expression to creativity, skill in sport, music or art, sense of humour, or personal integrity and honesty.

They can’t show how much he means to his family, friends, teacher and community, they don’t even reflect how much effort and commitment it may have taken him to achieve his final result.’

The most important things in life can’t be graded or calibrated. They are too refined for that.

Rabbi Fine is schools director of Seed

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