Leading article: The tyranny of league tables and endless exams

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The summer exam results caravan rumbles on. Some 600,000 students turned up at their schools yesterday to pick up their GCSE results. And, as with last week's A-level results, there was reason for optimism. A significant number of pupils did well. But, as with A-levels, there is also reason for grave concern about the exam system these pupils have been through. Richard Cairns, the head of Brighton College, this week criticised the league-table culture that has taken root in the education system, in which the priority for many schools is either to maintain their place, or to move up the rankings, in the annual exam-results listings.

He was right to do so. The tyranny of the league table is causing severe dislocations and is not serving the best interests of students. It encourages pupils to take an unreasonably large number of GCSEs, a sure way of pushing their school up the tables. It also encourages a style of teaching that is rigidly tailored towards getting pupils to pass exams. Pupils are getting very good at this, as testified by the ever-rising pass rate. But it is too often at the expense of their general education.

And as employers have been pointing out, many school leavers, for all their qualifications, often lack the basic skills of writing and arithmetic. Some have to be sent on remedial courses. We should note too that the Department for Education yesterday slipped out its disappointing national curriculum test results for 7-11-year-olds yesterday. These indicate that standards of literacy are actually going down. We should not be fooled by yesterday's healthy headline results into assuming all is well in the education garden.

The system needs reforms that go beyond GCSEs. The exam obsession continues during A-levels, which have been split into smaller modules in recent years. Pupils can retake exams an apparently endless number of times if they do not get the results they want at first. The result is that pupils who remain in education up to age 18 are subject to three years of almost constant examination. As has been pointed out, our children are the most tested in the western world.

This raises the question of when do they have time actually to learn anything? It is also a wonder that the problem of stress is not more widespread than it is. Another unwelcome byproduct of this fixation on exams is that it encourages pupils to sit easier subjects. This explains the slide in the numbers taking languages, which are perceived to be more difficult options. Many schools have wound down their modern-language departments since these subjects were made non-compulsory, making the decline potentially irreversible.

The House of Commons Education Select Committee will conduct an inquiry into exam testing later this year. It is to be hoped this will provide a spark for change, and, ideally, the introduction of a more flexible diploma system as recommended by virtually the entire educational establishment. But perhaps the greatest cause for concern arising from yesterday's results day - and one that seems to provoke surprisingly little comment - is that for hundreds of thousands of young people, yesterday's trip to school will be the last contact they have with the education system. The proportion of youngsters who drop out of the British education system at age 16 remains one of the highest in the developed world. This is the broader picture that we must not neglect.

It is vital to devise an education and exam system that suits the needs of employers and unlocks the potential of students. But it is equally vital that we persuade more young people that staying in school is still the best route to a fulfilled life. Too many continue to leave education at the first opportunity they get - and live to regret it.