Checkmate for exam system credibility?

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Education Matters by Tim Carroll, Vandyke Upper School headteacher and chairman of the Leighton Buzzard Headteachers’ Group...

The school chess team spent last weekend at Eton College and performed with distinction as it happens against some of the country’s top teams.

While students bent over the chessboard scheming and concentrating, accompanying staff enjoyed a fine tea and tour of the famous boys’ school. Two things stood out.

First, some undeniably impressive facilities. Second, the state of disarray of classrooms where books and papers seemingly spilled over surfaces and onto floors in a way apparently regarded as quite the norm. I mention this because Eton has been on my mind after an intriguing debate involving the out-going headmaster of Eton in which he warned of a “fundamentally Victorian” approach to exams in the UK. This view echoes that widely expressed after another summer when the sheer weight of examinations and their complexity threatened to overwhelm us.

This should be of great concern to us all given both the impact of exam grades on young people’s lives and the increasingly erratic outcomes produced by exam markers, not to mention the eye-watering cost to the public purse of exam fees: £130,000 in a typical secondary school.

Disturbing stories abound of exam papers containing errors and poorly framed questions, marking and moderation practices best described as dubious and clerical errors akin to first class clangers. And yet we all bow down before the examining bodies because we are all fearful of rocking the boat. We all feel vulnerable to the whims of the examiner and are so dependent on their judgements – students for their results and schools for their reputations.

As the exams system loses credibility in the eyes of teachers so the recruitment to the vital marking and moderation process becomes ever more difficult and these tasks fall on fewer and less experienced shoulders thus compounding the situation further.

How will this end? It is hard to say as further change to a system already writhing from constant change may well be needed but may also prove to be the tipping point of no return. Watch this space.