The exams crisis should prompt a deeper rethink of the purposes of education

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Before the controversy over this year's A-levels becomes too mired in the defence of fixed positions, we should seize the chance to ask some fundamental questions. Not just about examinations but about the issue beyond that – the purposes of the education system in Britain.

Before the controversy over this year's A-levels becomes too mired in the defence of fixed positions, we should seize the chance to ask some fundamental questions. Not just about examinations but about the issue beyond that – the purposes of the education system in Britain.

In all the tinkering since Kenneth Baker's so-called Great Education Reform Act of 1988, the emphasis has been on prescribing what teachers should teach and on testing children to make sure they have learnt it. It is the managerial model of centralised state control, all targets and directives and guidelines backed up by inspections and assessments. It is the method applied enthusiastically by Labour to all the public services, but the one which is least suited to education.

It has produced a generation of children who have sat more public exams than any before them. The space for spontaneity, creativity and that now much-despised word, play, has been squeezed, along with that for music, sport, languages and anything a bit different.

Of course, public exams and standardised national tests are important, but they do not in themselves constitute education. They are merely quality control and certification.

A sensible education system would try to have fewer tests and exams but make sure they were more reliable and better tailored to their purposes. Indeed, it would be easier to maintain confidence in exam standards if present resources were expended on setting, marking and checking far fewer papers.

For that reason, The Independent has long argued that GCSEs should be abolished, except for a simple test of basic skills, and that they should be replaced by internal school tests.

Equally, adding a new tier of exams (the A-S part of A-levels) at the lower sixth level was a mistake. A single batch of public exams at age 18 to assess students for university entrance is enough.

The prescribe-and-test model has gone too far in primary schools, too, despite the fact that it is widely credited with helping to raise standards over the past five years. That improvement in literacy and numeracy skills is the result of more rigorous teaching methods, but they could be even more successful if they were not pushed on four-year-olds, many of whom are too young. The obsession with tests means that children start formal learning too early, and earlier in Britain than in most other countries. In several other European countries, children do not start full-time compulsory education until the age of six or seven.

Cutting back on testing should be part of a much wider devolution of power to schools and, through them, to parents and children. As increasing numbers of people are discovering around this time each year, the ideal of parent choice in education is a false promise. Despite cosmetic attempts at specialisation, state schools are all trying to do the same things within a highly structured national curriculum. It is not surprising, then, that league tables, which measure performance inadequately over a narrow range of subjects, assume such importance. This emphasis discourages experimentation, a principle which ought to be at the heart of a system of education rather than rote learning.

Real choice will only be possible if the state prescribes a smaller core and encourages a variety of providers to offer widely differing kinds of education. Sadly, we are a long way from a modern ideal of liberal education – liberal in the sense of transferring power from the state to individuals and families. But if this week's crisis of confidence helps push us in that direction, some good may yet come of it.

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