Victorian exam system fails pupils, says Eton headmaster

Aug 5, 2014 by

Exams in England are “unimaginative, little changed from Victorian times” and fail to ready pupils for the modern workplace, warns Eton’s headmaster.

Too much focus on grades means exams can eclipse an all-round education, argues Tony Little, in the Radio Times.

Mr Little says the pressure is on for England to emulate highly academic school systems in east Asia.

But he warns against copying “the same straitjacket the Chinese are trying to wriggle out of”.

Mr Little describes the current exam system as obliging students “to sit alone at their desks in preparation for a world in which, for most of the time, they will need to work collaboratively”.

‘A different tune’

He also highlights a recent poll which suggests that nearly three-quarters of parents are worried that Britain is on the slide compared with east Asian countries that perform better in international comparison tests.

“The pressure is on, we must all do better – whether we are public schools, state schools, free schools or academies – and especially in league tables.”

But, he suggests, the current drive to bring England’s education system more into line with those in countries like Singapore and China, may be misguided.

He says that just occasionally “a voice can be heard singing a different tune”.

He welcomes a controversial letter sent last month by two teachers at a Lancashire primary school to their 11-year-old pupils after their test results.

The letter, from Rachel Tomlinson head of Barrowford Primary School in Nelson, Lancashire and teacher Amy Birkett, told the children to enjoy their results but said they should be aware that there are many ways of being smart besides performing well in exams.

Mr Little says he was interested in the public response to the letter – either as an overdue and necessary support for the children, or as a betrayal of their futures.

He concludes that while a sharp focus on performance is a good thing there is more to education than “jostling for position in a league table”.

He repeats a recent conversation with the head of a leading school in Shanghai who felt his pupils’ education “was stifled” by the highly demanding Chinese equivalent of A-levels.

Exam ‘treadmill’

The head was concerned that his students lacked “the ability to develop, amend and present an idea, the capacity to think laterally. And where did he look for inspiration? To Britain”.

The Department for Education responded: “We make no apology for holding schools to account for the results their pupils achieve in national tests and public examinations.

“Parents deserve to know that their children are receiving the very best possible teaching. But all good schools know that there is no tension between academic success and an excellent all-round education.

“We know constant testing is unpopular and we are ending the exam treadmill by returning A-levels to linear exams at the end of two years.

“This will ensure students gain a deep understanding of their subjects and end the culture of constant assessment and resits.

“Our reforms will ensure we have an exam system which prepares young people to succeed in modern Britain.”

via BBC News – Victorian exam system fails pupils, says Eton headmaster.

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