Failed: our one-size-fits-all education system

Why fiddle with a universal exam system so that pupils can opt into sitting a different exam within an exam?
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The Independent Online

The school examination season is finally over, and with it the endless horror stories about stressed-out pupils sitting more papers in one day than I can remember having completed in all my years at school.

The school examination season is finally over, and with it the endless horror stories about stressed-out pupils sitting more papers in one day than I can remember having completed in all my years at school.

During this period we have heard about how AS-levels are meaningless, how despite government figures there has been no change in the level of numeracy and literacy among 10- and 11-year-olds in the last four years, and how all three of the main exam boards have either managed to set papers with errors in them or not get them out to schools on time.

Now, to crown the astounding, but sadly familiar, sequence of events, our attention is being directed to another little problem. Top passes at A-level are now so prevalent that élite universities are unable to tell from exam results which candidates really are quite notably clever and which are just above-averagely clever.

Just as there are bitter complaints about the surfeit of exams at this time of year, every year, there are protests later every summer about the results. Britain's ever-increasing ability to pump out young people with terribly good A-level grades certainly is amazing, especially within an education system, which we were informed yesterday, is not even much cop at keeping children from becoming dehydrated.

We're told by the Government that the ever-growing success of our 18-year-olds should be a cause for celebration. The curmudgeons who say that it is because the exams have got easier, the marking has become less rigorous, and because British education has become a factory teaching pupils only how to pass exams, are Just Spoiling Things For Everybody.

They don't understand how hurtful all this criticism is for the children themselves, who have worked hard to gain their good results, only to be told that it is because the bar has been lowered. They don't understand either, how demoralising such criticisms are for teachers, who are damned if results are good, and damned if they aren't.

They don't understand either, that this is exactly how things should be. Government targets, after all, aim to drive the population of pupils moving into higher education up to 50 per cent. A-level passes have to keep on with their dizzy climb if this bright future is to be achieved.

Yet despite all the declarations that everything is absolutely fabulous, the powers that be have already admitted, in their tortuous, coded fashion, that there is indeed a problem with all this high achievement at A-level. But because they will not face it head-on, the problem can only be addressed by seeking tortuous and coded solutions.

There is a row between government ministers and their advisers about how the embarrassment of exam-result riches might be sorted out. The trouble is that by tampering with the core of A-levels themselves, the government is clearly concerned that it might give succour to some of the critics who have been snapping at its heels for years.

The Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, revealed a possible "solution" to the problem in a Green Paper in February. What if pupils were offered optional harder questions so that the ones who felt they could handle them could try for an A-grade distinction?

What next, I wonder? Optional easier questions for those concerned that they might not scrape an E? Surely it's preposterous to fiddle with a universal exam system so that pupils can opt into sitting a different exam within an exam? What happens if a cocky pupil flunks the harder question? Marks for trying?

And when would young people have to make the decision about which A-level they'll sit? Everyone goes into exams hoping that there will be questions about the subjects they've studied the most. Does the pupil have to sit in the examination room, making up their mind as to whether they tackle the hard questions about less familiar topics or the easier ones about more familiar ones?

Or what if it's the other way round, and a pupil by chance can tackle the hard questions more confidently than the easier ones? Wouldn't such a system just add a further element of luck to a process which has quite a significant degree of luck built into it already?

There are many reasons why this idea is a turkey. And guess what? There are people even people close to government who don't think this idea is such a great one. They favour instead, in a novel alternative, the introduction of an extra examination called the Advanced Extension Award, to be tackled after A-levels had ended.

This plan is pretty bad as well, especially when it's obvious that examination boards are already unable to cope with the number of exams they have to set and mark. Anyway, why test pupils twice on the same body of work? So that the élite universities can decide only to accept pupils who have sat these exams? Wouldn't they simply be a university entrance exam, only run by the state instead of the universities?

Ms Morris, it's plain to see, is keen to avoid setting up AEAs because the Government already gets so much stick over its endless introduction of new tests. But her preferred option – basically hiding a new examination inside an old examination – is simply pathetic. Neither of these ideas is any good at all. All they do is emphasise the fact that A-levels are not challenging enough to cater to the full range of 18-year-olds sitting them. All they do, by avoiding the real problem, is to point up how A-levels have either become – or perhaps always were – an inadequate barometer of intellectual excellence.

Why can't all these education experts see that the thing to do is to include the questions that they would like to see either as optional within the A-level or optional as part of a separate exam within the A-level as university-entry-exam ambit, and thereby solve everything from the endless carping of critics to the actual difficulty they're facing?

The reason, of course, is entirely political. The Government, on one level, does not want to alter the A-levels because statistically they are a huge success, providing feel-good educational news every year.

But on another level, this stubborn inability to accept that A-levels are no longer quite advanced enough, for whatever reason, exposes a dreadful ideological double-bind. New Labour wants to promote equality, but at the same time cannot see that equality is not achieved by trying to impose the same standards on everyone. Instead it is achieved by placing similar value on different talents and qualities.

Comprehensive education was supposed, of course, to be broad, but instead it is narrow, unable to cater to the most or to the least academic. To help the former, all we have to do is offer them exams that really test them. As for the latter group, we hear about their failings every day, and seem unable to alleviate their misery.

This country seems divided between children who feel on the scrapheap at very young ages, and vote with their feet (and their parents' compliance) to reject school, and children who have, on paper, the qualifications to attend the most rarified of academic institutions.

This suggests to me that the one size fits all, test-geared education system, is failing children at both ends of an educational scale that simply is not adequate for measuring human worth. The tinkering that goes on in an effort to avoid facing up to this fact is shameful.