A-level results day 2015: Why students' access to university and jobs is being stifled by exams

'If Stephen Spielberg, Pablo Picasso, or José Mourinho had failed in their A-levels, would we consider them stupid?'

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The Independent Online

So here it is, merry results day – Christmas morning, with none of the anticipation but, unfortunately, a few of the unwanted presents and awkward family members.

Well done if you’ve been good this year. Teenagers who can come through months of cramming-in a social life and anything above a ‘U’ grade deserve to jump around and pose for creepy Daily Mail photos all they want in my book.

If not, here’s something that may make you feel better: it’s a scandal our access to university and jobs mainly depends on how well we can memorise long lists of information and regurgitate them over two-hour long exams.

To me, it just doesn’t add-up that our intelligence is judged on pure academics – on what we remember rather than how we use knowledge – when what the real world needs is creativity.

If Stephen Spielberg, Pablo Picasso, or José Mourinho had failed in their A-levels, would we consider them stupid?

Exams should need us to solve the kind of problems that you can’t look up or refer to experts. But, don’t just take it from me. “You’ve got children in rows, learning by rote, learning dates of history. I want a much more personalised education,” says John Cridland, a leading business spokesperson.

The question I would like to ask exam bosses is: do you really want a generation of young people who are only taught to recite facts and arguments? Or do you want schools to treat us like rounded individuals, encouraging us to think critically?

Nowadays, the system is so rigid and teachers are under such pressure to harvest good results that it feels as though too much time is spent cramming instead of learning. The stifling culture has spread to pupils, too. If only we had a Ucas point for every time classmates have asked: ‘Is this on the syllabus?’ or “Would this be good in an exam?’ We are all free-runners now, leaping from test to test.

Despite some negative stereotypes of British students, there is no doubt that we would love more opportunities to ask about things that actually interest us, let alone to exercise more choice and study topics that we care about in more detail.


My main problem with the exams overload is that it leaves young people little chance to express ourselves. Starting from the time-limits – where the need to write two or three sophisticated essays per hour in some subjects is absurd, to the emphasis on written papers over in-depth coursework – our whole concept of exams has to change.

The Government has tried tweaking the details – by dismantling modular A-levels, updating GCSE courses and grade structures, and rolling back SATs – but the same problems keep coming back like a nasty cold. It’s time for adults to swallow their pride and admit they have been so wrong for so long.

I am not saying we should abolish exams, but they each need a much broader syllabus that sparks our imagination. Meanwhile, tests must be able to show employers and admissions tutors that we can work well independently – not that we remembered an essay structure and survived months of practice questions.

What’s wrong with grading pupils on their presentations in class and how they respond to spoken questions, for instance, as well as giving us options over which modules to commit to memory? That way, at least, we might remember things at the same time as learning to create and evaluate.

Twitter: @DannyWittenberg