E Jane Dickson: The rotten heart of our exam system

Click to follow
The Independent Online

All my adult life, I have had a recurrent nightmare. I'm in an exam room. I turn over the paper and find I am required to answer questions on a topic – Old High Church Slavonic/ quark theory/ the courtly tradition of mice – for which I am totally unprepared. " You don't understand," I splutter to an implacable invigilator (who sometimes rides a rocking horse), "I'm not prepared!"

We need not, I think, trouble Dr Freud with this one. Nor is it an anxiety dream likely to plague the current generation of GSCE and A-level candidates. The news that exam boards are tipping off teachers as to exactly which questions will come up on a given paper comes as dreary confirmation that something is rotten at the heart of our public examination system.

We have long suspected that exams are not what they used to be. Year on year, we are told by education ministers that escalating grades are entirely attributable to the hard work of teachers and pupils. As someone who spends a good deal of time around teenagers – my daughter sits her GSCEs this year – I am desperately disposed to applaud honest effort. The more objective side of my brain remains perplexed as to why this remarkable surge in academic standards is not better reflected outside the exam room.

We should not, perhaps, be so very shocked at the close connivance of schools and exam boards. Viewed sceptically, it is the logical consequence of "teaching to the test", a practice which undercuts every principle of liberal education. Why study 15 poems for GSCE English when, as revealed to teachers at a recent exam board conference, only three will come up?

There may, once, have been an ideological point to the spoon-feeding approach – an attempt to standardise education across socio-economic strata. If so, it has been a massive own goal. With so much of GCSE and A-level courses given over to "controlled assessment" – where candidates prepare answers to known questions over a matter of weeks – success is at least partly dependent on the level of support a pupil is given. The child from a school where the pupil-teacher ratio is high (which effectively means the private sector) or from a home where parents have the education to help – or the money to buy in help for this extended "preparation period" – is at a distinct advantage. Factor in the "box-ticking" nature of the marking process highlighted by this week's revelations and it is evident that this is not an arena in which a less advantaged child – however independently intelligent – can easily shine.

Education Secretary Michael Gove is much given to misty-eyed pronouncements about "schools as the engine of social mobility". Yet his pet project , the Academy system, is structured to reward schools which perform best in exams, schools which – surprise! – are overwhelmingly located in middle-class areas. While Gove breathes fire about discredited exam boards, the news that academies were vastly overfunded in their first year of operation passes under the public radar. Apparently, the overpayments were "an administrative error". Oops.

The real scandal of our exam system is that in funnelling ever larger numbers of candidates through ever narrowing curricula, it shuts down both opportunity and capacity for intellectual inquiry – the very quality that traditionally sorted sheep from goats. Now we're all going down, baa-ing and bleating, together.