Suffolk: Retired head warns against Gove’s ‘exam lottery’

Former teacher and university lecturer Mick Wilson

Former teacher and university lecturer Mick Wilson - Credit: Archant

On September 2, 2012 the EADT published a story about Danish teachers visiting a comprehensive school in Suffolk.

They refused to believe that the UK would adopt the “backward-looking” plans that Michael Gove is seeking to re-introduce for 16-year-olds, which will involve all pupils sitting gruelling three-hour written exams.

They regarded Mr Gove’s plans as “surreal ramblings”.

Although Mr Gove has been forced to drop his absurd plans for an EBac exam, he is still aiming to introduce three hour exams and abolish course work for our 16-year-olds.

These plans do not reflect the needs of the 21st Century. Mr Gove is constantly referring to Britain’s global requirements but cannot appreciate that these can only be met by problem solvers, not parrots. We need to encourage students to think divergently rather than simply memorising facts.


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Three hour exams are totally inappropriate for this day and age. They will encourage pseudo lecturing by teachers while pupils sit passively at their desks or urgently raise their hands (“Please Miss, please Miss...”) trying to guess what is in the teacher’s head.

Unfortunately, many parents as well as pupils (and presumably Mr Gove) have been led to believe that real work is copying down what the teacher says. In reality, this kind of whole class teaching does not work - it fails to stretch the very able while the less academic get left behind. It by-passes late developers, whose talents are slow to emerge (such as the Winston Churchills, Richard Bransons and Vincent Van Goghs of this world) and it bores everybody in the classroom. It is also suggested that girls are disadvantaged when course work is not taken into consideration.

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Exam preparation does not stimulate most students to think beyond memorising. On the other hand, pupil-led group work that is encouraged, and is indeed necessary for course work and modular activities, encourages peer group interaction in which individual pupils hypothesise, guess, interpret, imagine, argue, disagree or agree, give opinions, and summarise – all essential tools for developing co-operation and successful work with colleagues in future workplaces.

If Gove’s outdated proposals are introduced we might get better three hour exam results that may push us higher in the global league table for facts and memory testing (Gove’s ambition), but it won’t promote an ability to solve problems.

Mr Gove does not seem to understand the difference between the terms rigorous and arduous. “Rigorous” refers to studies that are careful, diligent, painstaking, thorough, studious, and – above all – pleasurable; it refers to the kind of active learning that goes on when a student is working on a piece of course work of which he or she is proud. It is this kind of work, usually kept in folders and portfolios and frequently displayed to the student’s peer group, that Mr Gove wants to end. It is this kind of work, when a pupil has time and interest and commitment, that Mr Gove wants to abolish. It is this kind of work that certainly professional adults do almost every day and therefore is best applied in classrooms as preparation for 21st Century quick-wittedness in the global market. Yet Mr Gove wants to end it. In its place he wishes to re-introduce arduous three hour exams at the end of two years memorising.

“Arduous” refers to work that is taxing, onerous, laborious, burdensome, relentless, fatiguing, grinding, intolerable. You know, when your brain is numb, your fingers inky, and your wrists ache with passive note taking in preparation for a three hour exam to be taken in a year or two’s time.

Course work is frequently completed by pupils, who might at times be working together, i.e. co-operating, or using the whole range of modern media to investigate hypotheses; while solely preparing for an exam is associated with solitude when an individual is silently competing with others. If Mr Gove’s aim is to create masters and docile workers he’s on the right lines.

If you’ve got about £30,000 to spare each year you could send your child to a prestigious private school where teachers preside over learning rather than lecturing. As the Master of Wellington College, Anthony Sheldon, argued: ‘‘The new world does not need container-loads of young men and women whose knowledge is narrowly academic and subject-specific which they can then regurgitate in splendid isolation in exams.’’ (An end to factory schools: An education manifesto 2010-2020, Centre for policy Studies, March 2010).

Make no mistake, the very best independent schools, those with wealth, time and space on their side, are able to promote learning way beyond the boundaries of three hour exams by encouraging course work and pupil participation in the language of the classroom. Ex-Etonians in our Government can vouch for that. All I am really saying is that what’s good for them should be good for us.

Standards in writing, spelling and grammar are much higher when a pupil has the chance to alter, re-write and improve written work that will be kept in folders and frequently displayed to fellow pupils in the classroom, and maybe even illustrated with care and pride.

Working on re-drafts is a time when the teacher can give individual attention to meaningful grammar and spellings when pupils can see how vital it is to argue logically. How many teachers have tried teaching the apostrophe to whole classes of children only to find that their written work next day has caught the measles?

Learning grammar by rote is nonsense. Grammar is an essential and quite beautiful aid to logical argument: standards will continue to fall if politicians think it can be taught like multiplication tables or spelling tests. Grammar has to be taught on a one-to-one basis according to the needs of individuals. Course work allows for this in a way old fashioned exams never can.

One-off writings seen by only one or two examiners and thereafter lost forever have not gone through the essential process of re-shaping for a real audience.

Sitting a three-hour exam one has no time to re-draft or re-shape in order to make one’s views, opinions and even knowledge of facts more readable.

Three hour exams after two years of study are extremely poor at recognising talent: they are taken on one day and can only cover a small number of items. A different set of questions taken on another day could produce a different result. This is not a good preparation for a professional workforce.

I pity the next generation of fifth formers who will have to sit these exams and I also sympathise with future employers who will be faced with an examination lottery that has little validity in the modern world.

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