Education Letter: Exams fail the test

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I wonder if the fuss and kerfuffle about exam marks ("Marks and Sparks", EDUCATION, 17 June) is simply just the last gasp of a dying culture, of the in-built failure-oriented system we have come to accept as the norm in educational assessment. I'd like to think so but, sadly, I am afraid it isn't so.

Nationally advertised posts for the University of Industry are demonstrating an increasingly strong move towards lifelong learning. But there seems to be a marked reluctance to face up to the meaning of the term and its consequences.

And yet it is simply expressed in the two words. Firstly, "lifelong" means, believe or not, lifelong - from 0-90, cradle to grave, hatch to despatch - it recognises that attitudes and skills built up in schools have a profound effect on later life. It acknowledges that rapid change leads to a permanent state of learning simply for personal and organisational survival.

Secondly, "learning" means, again unbelievably, learning - not teaching, not training and in some ways not even education. That puts the focus of effort on the learners, solving their personal requirements of how to learn and how to enjoy learning - lifelong. It recognises that successful learning takes place when the learners have ownership of their own learning and the individual motivation to learn.

So in a culture in which the development of everyone's human potential is paramount, why in Blunkett's name do we persist with this 19th century ritual of ensuring that we can fail as many as possible in order that some may be said to pass. It makes no sense to construct a huge and expensive examination industry simply to tell people that they have failed to learn, or, more accurately, that they have failed to memorise certain required pieces of information.

Surely it is not beyond the wit of our academic and political leaders to devise an assessment system in which each individual has a set of personally owned targets and learning curves and uses examinations as a learning opportunity to help assess and demonstrate where he or she is on that curve - no abnormal stress, no disapproval, no drop-outs, no one fails and no silly debates about whether a 4 per cent change in the pass rate is the end of the educational world as we know it. A failure-free system to replace this crazy rat-race from which thousands drop out, thousands more are excluded, millions are labelled as losers, and which, in any case, tests little beyond a good memory. In its place, learning as a personally understood, fun activity! Wow, what a stupid idea!

Sure we need standards and competence communicated; and sure we need to demonstrate the ability to understand and act on that understanding. However, the present system produces none of these abilities.


Visiting Professor

Sheffield Hallam and Napier Universities