empty-exam-hall

Will exams be permanently cancelled?

Exams have now been cancelled for two years running due to the pandemic. Will this become the new norm?

2020 and 2021 have set a new precedent for how children can be assessed. In normal circumstances, it would have been extraordinary to think examinations would ever be cancelled: they were such an intrinsic part of the schooling experience. In primary schools, the last year of education is dominated by revising for SATs examinations to clarify what a child has learnt in their first seven years of education. 

The intensity of such learning only increases as a child continues up the educational ladder. From year nine, children are asked to decide what options they wish to take at GCSE. Choose the wrong subjects and that could have numerous consequences for A-levels, university, and a future career. Years ten and eleven are then both dominated by learning a vast array of content. 

These two years involve far more than just content. With such learning comes a focus on exam technique: knowing how long to spend on questions, what to include, how examiner’s reports and mark schemes have adapted over the years. Often departments will strategically analyse what has appeared on past papers in order to help students prioritise their revision. 

Ah yes, revision. Spending just as much time on flashcards than on learning the content itself, and being aware of the effective (and less effective) methods of retaining information was vital to performing well. All these rules similarly apply at A-levels but with an even more intense situation. Schooling becomes defined by exams. 

Why? Because of the opportunities good results can provide. Do well at your GCSEs and it’s likely you’ll go to a good sixth form. Perform excellently at A-levels and a brilliant university degree could be on the horizon. Excel at your degree and the job opportunities could be left, right and centre…you get the picture. The reason society gives such a weight to examinations is linked to the doors they can open, or close. 

What does this mean for education? The pursuit of learning, a process that should be focused in the immediate, is combined with constantly thinking about one’s professional future. While qualifications of a high standard are both necessary and desirable for some top jobs, that is obviously not the case universally. The precise job someone takes on may not be linked to academic study. 

A person should never stop learning simply because they may be more suited to vocational qualifications. The concept of learning, whether academically focused or not, is something that should be lifelong and stays with an individual throughout their life. Just as qualifications can become the building blocks for effective employment, so learning at school can be the foundation for a process of seeking information throughout one’s life. 

That being said, examinations have arguably caused a large degree of stress over the years. Talk of exam burnout and being unable to memorise large amounts of information will have led some to conclude that the cancellation of examinations is something that should remain permanent. 

I’m not so sure. Exams are meant to be defined by their objectivity: everyone sits the same paper which are marked by examiners who have no knowledge of the students. Regardless of background or wealth, the students are marked simply by the work they have produced on the day. This contrasts one of the worries surrounding coursework, which was that far too much parental involvement hindered mark reflecting the student’s true ability. 

Such a factor in determining grades is likely to have been pronounced over the last couple of years. With the removal of an algorithm that took into account the background of the school, the focus has been solely on the teacher predicted grades. Clearly, elements of moderation will have taken place to ensure the marks given were as fair as possible. However, that won’t prevent some inevitable grade inflation. 

The ideal of testing pupils to recognise how much they have – or haven’t – learnt from their schooling is not something to abandon easily. Far greater, however, should be the focus on how society conveys learning and the pursuit of intelligence. Firstly, that learning should always be about far more than simply memorising information: it should be a long term pursuit of knowledge. Secondly, that intelligence and an attitude of knowing more shouldn’t be reserved to those who are pursing academic qualifications. Only with this attitude in mind can society ensure that an education system – with or without exams – is truly worthy of its name. 

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