E Jane Dickson: Something rotten in the heart of our exam system

There may once have been an ideological point to spoon-feeding. If so, it has been a massive own goal
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The Independent Online

All my adult life, I have had a recurrent nightmare. I'm in an exam room. I turn over the paper and find I am required to answer questions on a topic – Old High Church Slavonic/ quark theory/ the courtly tradition of mice – for which I am totally unprepared. "You don't understand," I splutter to an implacable invigilator (who sometimes rides a rocking horse), "I'm not prepared!"

We need not, I think, trouble Dr Freud with this one. Nor is it an anxiety dream likely to plague the current generation of GSCE and A-level candidates. The news that exam boards are tipping off teachers as to exactly which questions will come up on a given paper comes as dreary confirmation that something is rotten at the heart of our public examination system.

We have long suspected that exams are not what they used to be. Year on year, we are told by education ministers that escalating grades are entirely attributable to the hard work of teachers and pupils. As someone who spends a good deal of time around teenagers – my daughter sits her GSCEs this year – I am desperately disposed to applaud honest effort. The more objective side of my brain remains perplexed as to why this remarkable surge in academic standards is not better reflected outside the exam room.

We should not, perhaps, be so very shocked at the close connivance of schools and exam boards. Viewed sceptically, it is the logical consequence of "teaching to the test", a practice which undercuts every principle of liberal education. Why study 15 poems for GSCE English when, as revealed to teachers at a recent exam board conference, only three will come up? Why should candidates struggle for original or eloquent expression when, for a consideration (conference fees come in around £230 a head), a list of the "buzz words" necessary for optimum marks can be supplied in advance?

Exam scandals, after all, are nothing new. When I was sitting my Eng Lit O-level in the 1970s, the Northern Ireland exam board was hauled over the coals for its choice of an "unseen" poem – a stanza by DH Lawrence with the usual excited imagery of snakes and clefts. Convent schools in the province were up in arms. How, they demanded, were good Catholic girls supposed to understand this filth? (Any advantage I enjoyed as a good Protestant girl was lost on me; I filled pages with my earnest appreciation of Lawrence the nature poet.)

Today, the good sisters' objection would be laughed out of court. Not just because the sexual arcana now doing teenage rounds would make DH's eyes water, but because the idea that candidates might bring their own experience or knowledge – what used to be called "culture" – to bear on their subject now seems hopelessly quaint.

There may, once, have been an ideological point to the spoon-feeding approach – an attempt to standardise education across socio-economic strata. If so, it has been a massive own goal.

With so much of GCSE and A-level courses given over to "controlled assessment" – where candidates prepare answers to known questions over a matter of weeks – success is at least partly dependent on the level of individual support a pupil is given. The child from a school where the pupil-teacher ratio is high (which effectively means the private sector ) or from a home where parents have the education to help – or the money to buy in help for this extended "preparation period" – is at a distinct advantage. Factor in the "box-ticking" nature of the marking process highlighted by this week's revelations and it is evident that this is not an arena in which a less advantaged child – however independently intelligent – can easily shine.

The more rarefied the subject, the starker the class divide. A pupil may, for example, be shunted smoothly through GSCE Music (for which, incredibly, zero knowledge of musical notation is required). When it comes to A-levels, there is a considerable leap in necessary skills. A child taught to the test – and only to the test – has little chance of continuing successfully with the subject. It is not coincidence that in the current drive for Russell Group universities to increase their state school intake, music departments fare particularly badly.

Education Secretary Michael Gove is much given to misty-eyed pronouncements about "schools as the engine of social mobility". Yet his pet project, the Academy system, is structured to reward schools which perform best in exams, schools which – surprise! – are overwhelmingly located in middle-class areas. While Gove breathes fire about discredited exam boards, the news that academies were vastly overfunded in their first year of operation passes under the public radar. Apparently, the overpayments were "an administrative error". Oops.

The real scandal of our examination system is that in funnelling ever larger numbers of candidates through ever narrowing curricula, it shuts down both opportunity and capacity for intellectual inquiry – the very quality that traditionally sorted sheep from goats. Now we're all going down, baa-ing and bleating, together.