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Does the exams system need a complete overhaul?

14 Nov 2020

Does the exams system need a complete overhaul?

By Mark Richards


There have been many words and phrases that have entered the general public’s lexicon during 2020 that literally meant absolutely nothing to the vast majority of people before the coronavirus pandemic took hold. 

Furlough, social distancing, PPE, bubbles, self-isolating, shielding… all of it meant very little to us only a matter of months ago, now these terms have become a part of our everyday vocabulary. We can’t pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV news without being bombarded with these words.

There has been much talk of ‘unprecedented times’ and a ‘new normal’ as we struggle to get to get the grips with life under various types of lockdown and consider what the future might hold.

This applies to pretty much all sections of society – and education is no exception.


Lockdown forces us to re-evaluate things

Lockdown, especially the ‘full’ national lockdown of spring/early summer, forced many people into a re-evaluation of what their lives were all about. It may have been foisted upon us, but in many ways this great pause we find ourselves having to contend with might not be such a bad thing.

We have been given an opportunity to think about how we can do things differently in the future – and, again, education is no exception.

The pandemic made many teachers to re-think their ideas about what the fundamental core purpose of education is. Of course, the grading fiasco that developed over the summer laid bare some of the flaws in our current exam system. The reliance of terminal examinations as the only form of assessment, all of a sudden didn’t look like such a great idea. The disproportionate way pupils from poorer backgrounds look set to be affected by the disruption of lockdown has exposed some of the unfairness that exists within our education system.

Most people just want the whole coronavirus thing to end so that we can go back to normal. But what will that ‘normal’ look like, and should we just go back to the way things were?

Or, is now the time to consider how we can revamp and overhaul our exams system?

Is it time to give education a reboot?


What is the purpose of education and our schools?

Schools have had to shift focus this year. Remaining open to educate the children of key workers during the lockdown, once again thrust schools – as they should be – into the role of community servants. Schools became a hub for local communities, protecting and safeguarding young people and supporting families. OFSTED and school league tables, almost in an instant, become totally unimportant and redundant. 

Do we really want to return to a climate where the need to please OFSTED or to do well in league tables overrides everything a school does?


Accountability – but not as we know it

All teachers and schools agree that there needs to be accountability within education. However, many would argue that the current system (or ‘regime’) is not fit for purpose. It’s worth remembering that the pause button has been hit on our accountability systems over the last 6 months.

Crucially, has it been missed at all?

Is it now time to reframe our thinking? Could the focus instead be on all schools seeking to continuously improve and move forward – a never-ending journey – rather than the ‘destination-led’ current goal and be-all-and-end-all of an Ofsted grade?


Where do exams fit in to all of this?

The summer’s grading debacle exposed inherent flaws in our exam system. The fact that schools have faced so much disruption over the past few months has led many to question whether exams can really be fair to students next summer too. Of course, the underlying problem is that the exam system has never really been fair.
Some commentators suggest that the problem with GCSEs are that they are being made to serve too many masters – and are not really doing a very good job with any of it. GCSEs are stepping-stones onto Level 3 post-16 courses. They provide pupils with a record of their academic achievement, and they are used as part of the school accountability system.

How effectively the current GCSE system does any of the above is questionable.


Should GCSEs be overhauled?

Nobody in education would really want to see another major overhaul in our exam system - in an ideal world – but COVID has thrown everything upside down.

When there are so many flaws evident in our current exam system, surely the conversation needs to be about how things might be changed for the better.

With the world of work changing rapidly and looking set to continue to do so, questions should be asked about whether our exam system is still fit for purpose. The system has changed very little in half a century (and more). That it itself should raise a few eyebrows. COVID creates a chance to press the re-set button. We shouldn’t be afraid of doing so.




1- 5 Reasons why all teachers should try being an examiner at least once

2- Exams - How could they be done differently?

3- How to Prepare Students for Exams

4- Do bad exam results mean you are a bad teacher?

5- How to keep students motivated and confident about their exams


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