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

Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Theresa May was kept on as Home Secretary by David Cameron in his post-election Cabinet reshuffle (EPA)  

The Only Way is Ethics: Rights to privacy and free expression will always be at loggerheads

Will Gore
The handling of the tragic deaths of Bobby and Christi Shepherd in 2006 by Thomas Cook was appalling  

Thomas Cook case was a failure of heart

Danny Rogers
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine