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From the NS archive: Do we need exam certificates?

19 September 1975: How can exams be designed that stretch the most able without being too difficult for the less able pupils even to attempt?

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In 1975 the magazine’s then education editor Peter Wilby (later to become editor and today a columnist) described the mess of the exam system for 16-year-olds. The arrangement that split more and less able students into GCE and GSE groups had the effect of stigmatising both schools and pupils, but a one-size-fits all system was equally flawed: “Trying to encompass all human merit in a five-point grading system is like trying to write all human knowledge on the back of a postage stamp.” The obsession with labels, finely distinguishing between abilities, and ensuring no student left school without some sort of certificate was of no use to potential employers. What they wanted was basic competence and a willingness to learn – things no exam certificate could guarantee.

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The educational Utopia is almost upon us. The Department of Education and Science has recently issued statistics showing that nearly 80 per cent of pupils now leave school with some form of public exam pass. It is no longer possible to fail GCE Ordinary levels; only to get grades below what used to be counted as the pass level or, at worst, to be awarded an “unclassified” certificate.

This week, the Schools Council (which advises the government on exams) has taken these developments a stage further. A sub-committee has recommended that O-levels should be abolished entirely, probably by 1981. A new “Certificate of Education: Foundation” would be taken both by pupils who now attempt O-levels and by those who attempt the less demanding Certificate of Secondary Education. The implied hope is that, though each subject exam will be designed for the top 60 per cent of the ability range, almost every 16-year-old will find at least one subject that he can tackle.

So we can look forward to the day when every youngster steps outside the school gates proudly holding aloft a piece of paper that enshrines his merits in a few simple letters. Universal certification in our time is promised.

The arguments for a single exam at 16-plus have been rehearsed before and the Schools Council can hardly be accused of indecent haste in acting upon them. It is nearly a decade since an official committee pointed out that there is no “clearly defined dividing line” between GCE and CSE pupils, and recommended that, at least, a common system of grades should be developed. It is five years since the Schools Council’s governors agreed, in principle, to abolish separate exams. Even now, the governors still have to consider public comments on the sub-committee’s proposals before approving them and, after that, they must seek a go-ahead from the government.

The dual exam system has perpetuated the less able in secondary schools, long after the wide acceptance of the comprehensive system. In all but a handful of the very courageous schools, experiments in non-streaming have had to be abandoned as soon as the exams loomed on the horizon. Unnecessarily early and painful choices have had to be made about whether pupils are GCE or CSE material. Fearful of making mistakes, teachers often hedge their bets by putting pupils in for both exams. Worst of all, some urban comprehensives have acquired reputations as “GCE schools”, others as “CSE schools” (because they don’t have enough bright pupils to make up economically ized GCE teaching groups), thus re-creating the most vicious aspect of the grammar/secondary modern school system.

Meanwhile, the secondary school curriculum has remained frozen. While almost every other aspect of schooling has changed out of all recognition in the past 20 years, experiments in what 13- to 16-year-olds learn have been confined largely to the less able.

Why, then, is it taking so long to introduce a more rational exam system? Because, as the sub-committee’s report clearly illustrates, educators have become so obsessed with the need to discriminate finely and fairly between levels of achievement while, at the same time, ensuring that no one goes away with a sense of total rejection, that they have become entangled in the entrails of their own good intentions. How can exams be designed that stretch the most able without being too difficult for the duller pupils even to attempt? You can, of course, have different exams, and different methods of examining, within a common system. But how do you ensure that the grades awarded are comparable?

The sub-committee has some ingenious ideas and has invented a new language to deal with its problem – “the grad-grad-orange system”, “the high tariff question”, “the incline of difficulty”, “the content/method system”, and so on into ever denser jargon. Yet, after five years of discussion, experiments involving 80,000 children, and expenditure nearing £500,000, the members of the sub-committee must know in their hearts that they haven’t found an answer. Trying to encompass all human merit in a five-point grading system is like trying to write all human knowledge on the back of a postage stamp.

The trouble is that our schools have been trapped into the belief that society requires them to slap convenient and simple labels on their charges before letting them loose on the world. They have become the front-line agents for the unavoidable business, in a modern industrial society, of deciding who can do what. Personnel departments do not like a human being descending upon them out of the blue, demanding a considered judgement on whether he has the skill, aptitude and motivation to be, say, an engineering apprentice. They prefer those who bear some badge of respectability such as four grade-3 O-levels. So important are these grades that the schools dare not get them wrong; hence, the paralysis that overcomes them when faced with exam reform.

What, in any case, does it tell an employer when a pupil has “History grade 2” or “Eng Lit. grade 3”? As one London head wrote recently, the latter could mean “a non-spelling, non-punctuating creative genius and literary critic or a conscientious, uncreative long-winded pendant”. Plainly, nearly all employers need to know that applicants are literate and numerate. It seems to me that schools ought to provide standardised evidence of this (it would concentrate teachers’ and pupils’ minds wonderfully) and that is as far as their responsibilities go. Otherwise, the schools should furnish an account of what a pupil has studied, what interests him most, what time and energy he has devoted to different aspects of schoolwork and so on. If employers wanted further information, they could set their own tests, designed to satisfy their own particular requirements.

Curiously, another Schools Council committee published a report only a fortnight ago exploring (its prose was far too ruminative for anything as positive as a recommendation to emerge) these ideas. From the evidence it received, it concluded that “employers are increasingly interested in pupils’ basic competence, attitudes to work and general dispositions rather than with finely designated levels of achievement in a range of subjects”. Sadly, the authors of the latest report merely remark snootily that they do not intend “to engage in debate with those who would wish to see public examinations abolished”.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.