Time to seriously question why we bother with exams

THE headmaster of one of the country’s leading schools is asking why pupils actually sit exams.

As the row rumbles on over the dumbing down of examinations and plans emerge to scrap GCSEs and replace them with “explicitly harder” tests Philip Britton, who heads up Bolton School boys’ division, called on the government to address one fundamental question — “just why do we do exams?” — something he says has never been tackled.

The government is currently at the centre of an educational storm after leaked documents showed plans to scrap current tests.

And there are calls for exam boards to be stripped of their right to decide the content of examinations so they do not bring down the quality of exams as they fight for market share.

“No one discusses why we do exams,” said Mr Britton.

“The current examining situation has evolved almost by accident.

“It is not the same all over the world and it is not the same in all successful countries as measured on international educational comparisons.

“At no stage has the reason why we examine been made clear.”

He added: “Certainly the debate includes who should examine — a focus on the three exam boards, how standards are judged between them, let alone between subjects and whether one national board would be a good idea. It wouldn’t, as it stifles any possibility of curriculum development.

“Everyone who discusses exams knows why they think exams are important. And to each person the reason we do exams is so obvious it does not need to be mentioned.

“This is the problem that leads to the endless discussions of why, what, where, how and what. These will never reach an end until there is a serious debate about why.”

Mr Britton has also asked why 16-year-olds should sit exams given that the school leaving age is rising.

He welcomed that what should be studied is forming part of the debate and said it was not for exam boards to decide what is taught, but certain groups which have vested interests like universities, schools and businesses, and for the right groups to own the “subject content”.

Mr Britton said: “This is an exciting challenge for independent schoolteachers to engage in, since they are very often subject experts concerned about their academic subject as well as transferring a love of that subject to the next generation.

“I urge those who lead the national debate to start with the discussion of why we do exams.

“Then what and where and when and how and who we test will seem so much more obvious.”

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