Are exams to blame for the failings of our education system?

June marked the last day of secondary education for me and thousands across the country, not quite how I was envisioning it, yet a significant occasion nonetheless. Though my final two months of school were drastically different, they have perhaps taught me some of the most important lessons: critical thinking, self-dependence and curiosity. But most of all, they have made me question the very way in which our education system exists.

But, why has it taken these exceptional circumstances, amid destruction and grief, for our education system to flourish for my year? The answer: freedom. With the cancellation of my exams, my teachers were unfettered from the constraints of rigid exam specifications enabling exploration and application. I was offered a unique insight into education without the impediments of our current system (an education system intended purely for exams). Instead, it allowed our highly-qualified, professional teachers to do what they do best; they were allowed to teach. Teach what is important, engaging and interesting to those students Zooming in from across the region. Teach to inspire a love of learning, stemming from passion and engagement, rather than teaching for grades in exams.

And my teachers agree. In some subjects, for example history, the national curriculum is voluminous and highly prescriptive, giving us very little flexibility over what we teach (but we make sure we find some), Director of Education for Bohunt Education Trust, Phil Avery, explained. He continued, “lockdown teaching has given Bohunt the chance for us to push what we believe education is about for students and parents”. Crucially, it has allowed the school to put students’ mental health at the forefront of the virtual classroom; Phil says: “we are leading on a national, longitudinal research programme that is looking at students' wellbeing and learning so that we can constantly adjust what we are doing to better meet the needs of students.

Isn’t this what our education should really be about? Education, by definition, should be preparing us for our future so should it not be centred on meeting our needs and developing autonomous, critical-thinking young adults, rather than acting as factories churning out exam-taking automata?

Of course, most year groups must adhere to units of work in preparation for their return to school (and thus a return to exams). For teachers, this means a return to the normality of meeting the needs of a system which holds them accountable through their compliance with a specification. Moreover, an exam-based system allows goals and structure to the life of a student, ensuring focus towards the primary purpose of obtaining good grades throughout their academic experience. Nevertheless, this insight into freedom from exam-based learning has provided us with an opportunity to reflect on the state, the purpose, and the effectiveness of our current education system, and begin calling for a change from our constructive and prescriptive “normal” education system.

Despite varying opinions on current exam policy, there was undoubtedly an agreement that we do education best when centred around the world outside the classroom, and the pressure of learning for formulaic exams doesn’t allow for that. “Teachers have been using far more authentic texts with students (rather than reaching for that convenient textbook on the shelf)”, Phil explained. Another teacher remarked that, whilst always making an effort to link the curriculum to the wider world,what the cancellation of exams did allow me to do was to take that a step further and completely move beyond the curriculum at a surface level with the [classwork] being about F1 engineers or using insect flight to develop drones.”

Contrary to what one may assume, this isn’t only us ‘rebellious’ and ‘hormonal’ teenagers who are calling for this change. It comes from the very teachers themselves. Phil explained, The change I’d love to see? Get rid of GCSEs and replace them with a suite of qualifications that look so much broader than the content-heavy GCSE exams; set free the great stuff we’re already doing, but could do so much more of if unconstrained: STEM, outdoor, volunteering, project-based learning, John Muir Award, activism, following students’ passions.”

Whilst entirely scrapping exams is a somewhat controversial topic, many effective alternatives are practised across the nations - in independent schools who aren’t required to follow the curriculum laid out by the government and abroad. Replacement qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme contain core modules based on public service and community-based support in addition to many schools in Scotland providing non-examined certifications in areas such as Personal, Social and Health Education. This level of diversification in education allows freedom for students to be able to explore the industries in which they wish to enter with hands-on experience as well as explore and support the very communities in which their schools are the foundation of.

Finally, another teacher noted, “I will conclude by saying that no educational system is going to be perfect. There is no one size fits all model for education, and there never will be. Students are all different, something that I hope never changes. What we can do is to adapt to those children in front of us and provide the best education that we can for them.” and we’ve heard it loud and clear from students across the world. Our future is drastically different from the past realities that our education still exists within. If we sincerely want to “adapt to those children in front of us”, we must centre our education, the root of change, around the climate crisis. Going forward, we must create a society of global citizens and problem-solvers equipped with the skills to face our collective future and the ecological breakdown that entails. Our exam-based system doesn’t allow for that.

Mary Skuodas (16)

Special thanks to Phil Avery and my physics teacher for their insights.

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Teach the Future is a youth-led campaign to urgently repurpose the entire education system around the climate emergency and ecological crisis.
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