Do too many exams fail the test?

Pupils now take more than 100 exams and tests in their school years. In the week that the exam season gets under way, Hilary Wilce talks to a selection of experts about how to reduce the overload
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The Independent Online

Like schools across the country, Turton School, a Bolton comprehensive, has just entered the long tunnel of exams and won't emerge until the end of June. During that time teaching sessions will be lost, school facilities made unavailable, breaks and lunchtimes swallowed up, and staff worn into the ground.

"But what worries us most is the pressure on students," says Charlie Taylor, the deputy head. "We're seeing increasing numbers just quitting. We've had two or three leave just before exams. Then you see the stress-related illnesses like glandular fever. And that means that students have to do re-sits. And we're also seeing more and more students doing AS re-sits for tactical reasons – they realise that they can get 10 extra marks more easily on an AS level than an A2 level – so even high-flying students are deciding to take them again, and sometimes twice more. Which means they're taking an incredible number of exams. It's against our advice, but they are doing it for university entrance and they can see that it works, it brings them closer to that A grade."

Young people are now on a relentless treadmill of targets and testing. Schoolchildren take more than 100 exams and tests in their school years, and then go on to do more in their undergraduate and post-graduate years. From the age of 16 until well into their 20s they have to spend the early summer swotting furiously for exams which will shape their futures. At the same time tutors and teachers have to fret about whether they have drilled their classes thoroughly enough for results to meet their own grades and targets.

It's an exam culture which costs more than £200m a year in schools alone, and which is delivering narrower learning, more stress, and more switched-off and unmotivated students. Worse, the system itself is at breaking point. Warning bells were sounded last year, when schools across the country reported something funny about their pupils' A-level grades. The new sixth-form exams had been rushed in too fast, and misjudgements had been made. As a result nearly 10,000 A and AS level papers were regraded, the then Education Secretary, Estelle Morris resigned, the head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Sir William Stubbs had to go, and the former chief inspector Mike Tomlinson was drafted in to head a national enquiry on the future of the exam.

He found that the examinations system was operating "at, or even beyond, capacity" and changes have been made this year. QCA has given the exam boards more guidance on grade boundaries. Grading disagreements are to be resolved earlier, money has been made available to recruit more markers, and some centralised marking will take place. Also in the pipeline is online marking, a move which will be hastened by the recent £20m takeover of the struggling exam board Edexcel by the media giant Pearsons to create a new exam body, London Qualifications.

As a result, the exam boards say all will be fine. "Exams will be marked properly, on time, and the results will be published on schedule," says George Turnbull of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance. And a spokesman for the Oxford and Cambridge and RSA exam board, the source of last year's problems, said, "Everything is working pretty well". However the board is still short of markers for some subjects and remains "on high alert". Significantly, Ken Boston, head of QCA, who has admitted that if all goes smoothly this year it will by "a hair's breadth", is only allowing himself to be "guardedly confident" about how things are looking so far.

Even so, schools welcome the adjustments. Last year, independent schools were at the forefront of complaints about A-levels. "This year I think we are as confident in the robustness of the system as we can be. We are pretty pleased with the greater transparency that has been introduced, and the closer scrutiny of grade boundaries," says Graham Able, head of Dulwich College and chair of the independent school association the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. But improvements in the marking system offer no long-term solution, he points out. "We need fewer exams per se, and fewer that are externally-marked."

Others put it more bluntly. Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, calls the current exam fever "utter madness. The number of papers has gone up something like 10 times in the last dozen years. There used to be 2.4 million scripts a year, now it's 24 million." And trying to improve the marking process is "starting at the wrong end completely. There's no point in treating symptoms, you've got to treat the problem."

Judith Norrington, director of curriculum and quality for the Association of Colleges, says "What we've got now is a short-term sticking plaster. We need to plan alongside this for what we really want to do. We need a real overhaul, with more internal assessment, and people looking at that assessment to see if it's valid."

In many instances, she points out, traditional exams are just plain inappropriate. "Would you want to get in a car with someone who'd written a paper on how to drive? If someone is studying presentation or communication skills, we don't need them to write an essay on this, we need to see how well they can present or communicate."

Consultations are under way about how to move on from this log-jam. There is widespread agreement that there must be more internal assessment, and that the 14 to 19 curriculum needs to be made more coherent. In the not too distant future, a baccalaureate type of qualification is likely to emerge.

Yet many schools throw up their hands in horror at the thought of yet more changes after the many innovations of recent years. And meanwhile they face yet more pressures to increase testing. "People are talking about making changes, but at the same time the exam thing is being reinforced on all fronts," says Ted Wragg. "You now have Ofsted telling primary schools that they should be taking the optional Year Five tests to prepare for the Year Six ones."

And at Turton School, where the inspectors visited recently and deemed it "very good", teachers were urged by them to introduce mock Key Stage Three tests, to prepare pupils for the real thing.

Soon, says Charlie Taylor, the winter exams will merge into the SATS, which will lead on to ASs, A2s and GCSEs "and we won't be doing any teaching at all, we'll just be doing exams."

How to revise ... and stay healthy

Students need to keep in mind all their needs – physical, mental and psychological – if they are going to revise effectively, says teacher and therapist Jean Robb, an expert on motivation and exam success. Her top tips include:

* start with something you can do. You'll work better if you do a five or 10-minute warm-up with something that you feel confident with.

* make sure you know the bits your teacher says are easy. Every exam includes something it expects everyone to be able to do. But if you're so worried about the tough bits that you forget the easy ones, you'll kick yourself when they come up.

* ask yourself, "Am I really prepared to put the work in that I need to pass this?" At this last-minute stage, it could be wiser to be honest with yourself, and concentrate on other subjects.

* remember, you are only doing this for yourself. If you feel angry and resentful that other people, like your parents, are making you work, you are just giving yourself escape routes. Let those thoughts go.

* have a jug of water by you while you work, and some slices of apple. That way you keep your brain well hydrated, and your blood sugar up. Fizzy drinks and chocolate bars are not the same.

* If you feel a panic attack coming on, cut it off by taking some deep breaths and centring yourself. Feel the weight of your body on the chair, feel the weight of your clothes on your body, feel the air on your hands and face and be still for half a minute.

* if you feel tired, put your head on a cushion at the table, and relax or sleep for a few minutes. There is only so much you can learn at any one time.

'Creating Kids Who Can Pass Exams' by Jean Robb and Hilary Letts (Hodder & Stoughton. £7.99)