This is the week of exams - but don't despair if you fail them

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IT IS exam time in our household, as in millions across the land, with one daughter this week starting A-Levels and the other finishing finals. While in Britain we have not quite reached the "exam hell" of Japan - where young people are coached till midnight at specialised crammers and the newspapers are full of model answers to the public exams - we do seem to be taking this ritual of testing academic achievement more and more seriously. And for all the stuff about continuous assessment, exams remain the principal technique for doing so.

There is one powerful practical reason why exams are going to become more important still. It is that most of the "new" jobs that are being created need skills that can be measured by the technique of an examination. Of course we may be teaching people the wrong skills and testing them in a crude and imperfect manner. But that is an argument for better-crafted exams, not no exams.

New jobs need computer literacy, the ability to write clearly, to handle telephone conversations, marshal and project arguments, and so on. All of these skills can be measured quite simply by sitting someone down and getting them to do a test. In fact, our conventional set of exams is probably quite a good way of assessing people's use in the job market.

By contrast the "old" jobs, typically semi-skilled production-line jobs, do not particularly lend themselves to a conventional examination. You could teach people to do those jobs without needing them to be particularly bright in a conventional academic way. Now, I'm afraid, conventional academic skills are coming to matter more and more.

Why "afraid"? Well, because a world where academic skills matter more and more in the workplace is fine for those of us who can cope with exams. Writing a newspaper column, by the way, is just like writing a timed essay: life is doing an exam a day. But this trend is dreadful for the vast numbers of hardworking, honourable and decent people who just happen not to be particularly "academic".

The problem is not just that low-skilled people are finding themselves slipping down the earnings ladder, bad enough though that is. It is also that people who have practical skills, rather than academic ones, seem also to be losing ground. Yet the world needs people who can do practical tasks, not just those who can do quasi-academic ones. We cannot all be lawyers.

But all trends reverse themselves in the end, and, mercifully, I think we can begin to see this one turning too. The most important single skill demanded by the market is increasingly one that has nothing to do with academic performance, and which cannot be tested in any conventional way. It is called entrepreneurship.

Of course, there have been strings of famous millionaires who either dropped out of university or never made it in the first place. Bill Gates and Richard Branson spring to mind. But this is not something that applies just to a tiny handful of winners. There are powerful trends in the world economy that will require ordinary people, not just those in the business community, to be more entrepreneurial in the way they run their lives.

Everyone now accepts that the idea of jobs for life is dead. What we are finding harder to figure out is how to adapt to a world of economic uncertainty. Uncertainty is not all bad: with it comes much greater opportunity. But while we know that we have to adapt, for example, to the idea of having three or four or more different careers, working out how we should in practice prepare for that is much tougher. It is fine in theory to say that people have to become more flexible, but that sentiment is not much help on the Monday morning after you have been made redundant.

If, on the other hand, you already had been thinking about starting a business anyway, the redundancy cheque is the ticket to liberation: for the wonderful thing about a service-oriented economy is that the entry cost is very low. Anyone with a good idea can have a go.

So while the labour market seems to demand more and more formal qualifications (which is bad news for people who can't pass exams), it is also asking people to be more imaginative and commercial in the way they run their entire lives. So people with common sense, vigour, creativity, humour, charm, a willingness to save - all qualities that have nothing to do with academic achievement - will also do very well. In fact, people with these qualities, particularly common sense, may well do better than people who in conventional terms are more highly qualified.

What we have now is a job market where, for many people, the formal exam system will become more important still. Getting over the string of exam hurdles will be the main way, maybe the only way, in which you can cross over the threshold into a top-flight employer.

It is a bit alarming that top companies on the university milk round look at A-Level results as much as final degrees, but apparently A-Levels are a good guide to future performance in the company. And passing less academic tests will continue to be important for all sorts of other "new" jobs.

But parallel to this exam-oriented culture will be an entrepreneurship- oriented culture. The fizziest opportunities will occur in areas where no-one gives a thought about exam performance, where there are no academic barriers to entry.

So for the people for whom this exam season turns out to be less than wholly successful, all is not lost. There is another way.

It is not an easier way. In many ways it is a harder one, for you have to run up the stairs instead of rising up the escalator. But it may be more fun.

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