Damian Green: Our pupils are suffering from exam overload

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The Independent Online

Exam results week is in danger of becoming one of those peculiar English institutions that have a regular place in the media and social calendar and that change very little from year to year. Does the inexorable improvement in recorded results indicate ever rising standards, or does it signal ever easier testing and marking? All the usual suspects take their predictable positions, say the same things, and we all forget about it until next August.

Exam results week is in danger of becoming one of those peculiar English institutions that have a regular place in the media and social calendar and that change very little from year to year. Does the inexorable improvement in recorded results indicate ever rising standards, or does it signal ever easier testing and marking? All the usual suspects take their predictable positions, say the same things, and we all forget about it until next August.

Except that this is too serious an issue to treat in this way. For a start, it's unfair on those who take the exams and those who teach them. You can only take the exam paper that's put in front of you, and if a politician or a quango is suspected of massaging the results, it's clearly not the fault of the pupils.

So let's solve this issue once and for all. The Government should set up an independent review of the whole exam system, not run by the existing quangos but consisting of heads, university admission tutors, business leaders and those who have marked the actual papers for a number of years. At least then we will have a respected piece of research to debate, instead of the sterile shelling from entrenched positions that we now endure.

A good exam system should serve three purposes. It should provide rigorous testing to provide a genuine reflection of a child's abilities and knowledge. It should give accurate information about those abilities to parents and teachers, so that informed choices can be made about the paths to pursue. And it should provide a mechanism to inform employers, colleges and universities about the suitability of an individual for a job or course.

Without confidence that standards are being fairly set and maintained, the current system fails all three tests, at all levels of academic ability. Research at the University of York suggests that maths skills among its first-year science students have fallen steadily. Employers such as Tesco report that they have to spend increasing amounts of time training new recruits in basic literacy and numeracy skills. Stripping away the politics and the rhetoric, it is genuinely bewildering that the picture of ever rising standards that comes from inside the school system contrasts so starkly with the reported experience of those outside the system who assess its performance.

There are wider problems for any inquiry as well. Exam overload has now reached ridiculous proportions. The average pupil sits 45 exams in a school career. The most able sit more than 100. AS-levels were meant to widen the experience of 17- and 18-year-olds beyond the traditional three-subject A-level. Instead, the exam treadmill is forcing young people to give up sport, music and drama at exactly the wrong time. We will breed a generation of over-examined slackers if we are not careful. The inquiry should also look at the practical problems that now beset the marking of exams: a problem that spreads well beyond Edexcel. It should look more deeply at whether the division of responsibilities between the exam boards and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is working. The QCA has an unfortunate history of investigating problems and discovering that all is well, only to be hit in the face by reality in subsequent years.

Over-examination is a symptom of the wider problem affecting education, the perceived need for ministerial micro-management at all stages. The money for school budgets is now doled out according to ever-changing criteria set by the Department for Education, with results that too often seem arbitrary to those in the schools. The way teachers do their jobs each day is increasingly seen as a proper subject for intervention by ministers. Ominously, one of David Miliband's new responsibilities as School Standards Minister is "remodelling the school workforce". I look forward to the 400-page document asking every school in Britain to set improvement targets and performance management measurements for the caretaker.

In 1976 Jim Callaghan, the then Labour Prime Minister, pointed out that education had become a secret garden and needed greater control from outside. The reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, with the setting up of Ofsted, the testing and the publication of results and the ability of schools to choose to run their own affairs introduced better controls. Sadly, these developments have been followed by a desire to control every aspect of school life along centrally dictated lines. The consequent loss of morale of the teaching workforce, and the onset of initiative fatigue, has meant that even well-intentioned reforms now too often cause more harm than good. AS-levels are a classic example of this.

The most important underlying question for education is: which institution is the most important in improving standards? By its actions, the current Government shows that it thinks the Department for Education is the place where the key decisions need to be made. This is an honourable but wrong-headed approach. The key institution is the school, and until we take detailed decision-making powers away from the politicians and officials in Whitehall and devolve them to local people and institutions, we will never release the energies of those working in our schools and never unlock the full potential of all our children.

The author is the Conservative spokesman for education

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