Education is Not Just About Exams

by | Dec 2, 2020 | Education

The UK has a test-based education culture that is increasingly coming under scrutiny.  Did you know that in one of the world’s leading education systems – Finland – children don’t actually start formal academic learning until the age of seven?

Furthermore, Finland’s commitment to education equality means that they ban formal examinations until the age of 18 and do not allow streaming by ability.  It begs the question – is education all about exams or is there more to it?


Why are exams important?

Exams at some point are important because it is a good way of evaluating what the student has learned and how well this can be applied. It can provide a quantifiable measurement of ability and improvement in order to open up appropriate next-steps for the student. Exams can also be an indicator to future education institutions or employers about how well a student can absorb and apply information.


Is there more to education than exams?

Absolutely. There are increasing calls to address the stress and duress that regular testing can place on pupils. Leading National newspaper The Guardian recently published an article ‘The Guardian view on GCSEs: there is more to school than exams’ in which it called for an innovative approach to education that is more all encompassing.

There are some convincing arguments to be made on this.  Reports have been carried out evaluating the adverse impact of continual testing on mental health of pupils and results were concerning. The question is also raised about whether every subject should be tested in the same way.  Drama, for example, which centres on performance, imagination and creativity – should this nevertheless be assessed on memorisation?  These very practical subjects such as art and drama can arguably make far less sense if they are assessed in this way.

There is also the question of what education actually is. Resilience, for example is starting to be taught at Primary school to equip children for the inevitable life situations they will face where they will fail and have to keep working at something. A step in the right direction no doubt.

Education is also about wider learning and skills too.  At school, children learn interpersonal skills, important knowledge about the world around them and vital knowledge about the environment. When the focus is simply testing, some of the core messages can be lost as it can be viewed as a means to an end.  Instead, wouldn’t it be great if these skills were also praised as ends in themselves?


What do experts say?

The Higher Education Policy Institute, in a recent blog by Professor Tristram Hooley, Chief Research Officer of the Institute of Student Employers (ISE), recently highlighted that employers care less about exam results than schools might think. In his blog, he says “Students are sold a simplified version of human capital theory to motivate them – work hard at school and university and you will be rewarded once you get into employment. Good grades are often portrayed as the gateway to decent work and a successful career.” Instead, he suggests that employers don’t care too much about a grade in either direction but more about whether the student has picked up the relevant skills in their education. Employers, he argues,  care a lot about a candidates ability to learn; are they able to think on their feet and be resilient in the face off set backs? These, he claims, are the skills future employers are really after.

And so we have in some ways come full circle – from the switch to coursework, and practical training in the mid to late 90s back to a more recently rolled out exam culture that has never been so intense in the history of this country’s education system.

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