Comment: Students are trapped on a treadmill of endless exams

Susan Bassnett As anyone in education knows, from primary on, more examinations mean less learning
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The Independent Culture
A-LEVEL RESULTS are out and, once again, the Great Standards War is breaking out all over the country, with two opposing parties arguing savagely against each other, each claiming that they are right. One side argues that standards are rising with the publication of every new year's results; the other side claims that the opposite is happening, that standards are in decline and dumbing down is accelerating ever faster.

I'm increasingly concerned about A-levels, but not because I side with either of the factions. Both sides are right, after a fashion. If you look at the situation in terms of numbers, then we are enjoying a national learning extravaganza. There have never been so many young people taking A-levels, nor have there ever been so many scoring such high grades. University entrance requirements are increasing all the time and the schools are rising to the occasion and supplying students with starred As across the whole gamut of subjects.

But equally, there is little doubt that the syllabuses have changed, demanding less of students in terms of volume of reading and material content. Ask any sixth-form teacher or anyone lecturing to university first-year students. Increasingly, especially in the sciences, first- year university tutors are having to adjust to an intake of high-scoring A-level students who can't handle the kind of course that was on offer a decade ago. And if you look back at GCSE you see that here too the demands of the syllabus are reduced, which means a reduction right through the system, right up to Masters degree level. Why, you may wonder. My view is that the problem is directly linked to the current British obsession with examining.

The problem is made worse by the fact that we don't have an integrated, joined-up educational system in this country. One group makes changes that affect the next stage of the process without apparently a second thought. What happens in the schools has an impact on the universities, but you'd never guess it from the way changes are pushed through and from the dismal lack of consultation across the system. And as changes are implemented at different points in the educational chain, what everyone appears to forget is the knock-on effect of increased examining on individuals.

Take the proposed changes to the A-level, for example. In 2001, the current A-level system will be replaced by a new AS-level that will be somewhere between the present GCSE and a higher qualification, and A2-level that will be similar to the present A-levels. The rationale is to offer sixth formers a broader range of subjects, a great idea in principle. But like so many changes in education, this is being rushed through without adequate public debate.

There are no specifications yet from the exam boards as to what these new levels will look like, teachers are only just beginning to be given basic information, and are rightly concerned about the lack of guidance on how to teach the new syllabus. Nobody is very clear about what they are supposed to be doing, yet the new system is going to be in operation in September 2000. It's also deeply worrying for the universities, where we have had no opportunity to review the specifications and so will be expected to take students from 2002 with qualifications that we don't understand.

But my biggest worry is for today's students, both in school and university, who are steadily being manipulated by the system into a lifetime of examinations. Like hamsters in a wheel, they are on an examination treadmill from the time they start school.

In the space of a few years, we have not only started examining primary school children, we are proposing to subject adolescents to endless waves of examinations. From Sats at 7 and 11, they will now proceed to GCSE. In many schools, some children spread the load by taking exams a year early, and soon they will be following GCSE with AS a year later, then A-levels.

This will mean four years of examinations, and, if they go on to university, many will find that the introduction of modular courses means that examining is practically continuous. Even universities that are not modularised, like my own, subject students to examinations at the end of all three years.

Where my eldest daughter had two lots of national exams at school, followed by first-year exams and finals at university, my youngest child can look forward to exams annually for six or seven years. Since the late 1980s, we have increased examination pressures to absurd proportions. And as anyone in education knows, from primary through to post-graduate, more examinations mean less learning. We are creating a culture of examination, which means that children will be increasingly taught nothing other than how to pass those examinations, with all the implications of cramming, rote learning and restrictive teaching this implies.

We are already a long way down that road: one of the saddest things about league tables is that you keep your place in them by producing good examination results, not by providing all-round quality of education.

"Why are we studying this if we aren't going to be tested on it?" will be heard ever more frequently throughout the land. The teachers have no choice but to go along with this, since poor exam results mean dropping a place in the league. We are applying the criteria of football clubs to schools and universities, and then we wonder why the quality of learning is so debased, why syllabuses are diminished, why there are fewer extra- curricular activities in schools, why teachers are so stressed and why the number of children with phobias about school is steadily on the increase.

So don't get drawn in to this year's arguments about A-levels, which are the same as last year's. What we should be exercised about is what we are doing to our young people. For the reality is that they are having to work much harder than previous generations, as evidenced by the growing number of years in which they are subjected to the tyranny of examinations. Not since Dickens's abominable creation Mr Gradgrind, who turned all learning into facts and wouldn't have recognised creativity if it bit him on the leg, have we subjected our children to anything as bad educationally as this treadmill of examining.

The writer is the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Warwick University