In light of the UK’s recent exams fiasco, former Viewpoint Editor, Joe Waters, argues that it has never been more pertinent to re-evaluate the UK’s system of examinations.
To a foreign onlooker, the recent results fiasco that has enveloped both the Westminster and Scottish Governments in a miasma of incompetence may seem odd. After all, nearly every country in the EU cancelled or adjusted the way in which they examined end-of-school students, but none of them have faced the same backlash as that which occurred in the UK. While the cause of the fiasco was certainly unique, it exposed persistent and long-standing issues with the narrow and single-purposed Further Education (FE) methods of examination in the UK. It also showed, in my view at least, that the UK must switch to a more holistic method of FE.
Every year, sometime around the middle of August, there is an almost ritual reaction to various sets of FE results as they are released. It begins with Jeremy Clarkson’s yearly tweet, usually along the lines of “If you’re worried about A-Levels, I got 2 Cs and a U and I’m currently sat in my supercharged rocket ship enjoying a glass of champagne on the moon.” In England, the ritual is completed when a nonchalant yet disappointed 18 year-old is seen swigging from a hip flask live on BBC Breakfast, and the following questions are routinely asked but never answered: what do we do about unconditional offers? Are grades over-inflated? Are enough students taking ‘real’ subjects such as Maths and Physics, or are they too busy with useless tosh? Should universities give offers out after A-Level results rather than before? Eventually, some ‘expert’ will come onto the airwaves raving about how apprenticeships are important, only to be swallowed up by the fervour of A-Level results and denied the airtime they undoubtedly need and deserve. To top it off, the incumbent Education Minister of the day will broadcast proudly that these results will see “the largest number of students ever progressing to university.” And so, the ritual is complete until next year – that’s all folks!
The Education Minister’s statement is precisely one of the many problems with how we examine and qualify students in the UK. All that A-Levels (and to a lesser extent, Scottish Highers and Advanced Highers) serve to do is to allow students to start the car and move-off when the university traffic light turns green – nothing else. They do not serve to qualify or demonstrate any wider proficiency outwith understanding a very narrow curriculum of three subjects and a penchant for exceeding in terminal exams after two years.
The result of this, from personal experience anyway, is that students’ FE choices will be based on a two-dimensional trade-off between how easy the course is and how desirable to universities it is perceived to be. And, furthermore, in England you only get three choices (if you’re super-duper clever, your school might allow you to take four) so make them count! The results from this process are diabolical: expect to see a wide range of humanities students trying (and failing) to solve differential equations and struggling to get to grips with imaginary numbers in A-Level Maths; STEM students going to university not knowing how to structure a paragraph; and barely anyone choosing to learn a Modern Foreign Language (MFL). All of this is because, to Arts students, Maths is desirable; to STEM students, anything other than pure STEM is exactly the opposite of desirable; and to anyone except those who wish to pursue MFL at university, there’s exactly no benefit in suffering Spanish A-Level for two years. Furthermore, the focus on final examination found in the majority of A-Level and Higher/Advanced Higher courses creates the exact issue that has been laid bare by the recent results fiasco: students have approximately two hours with which to prove two years’ worth of work per subject. In most cases, everything comes down to the final exam.
In both England and Scotland, it was revealed that for the class of 2020 moderation algorithms would consider, amongst other things, a student’s previous coursework marks; to which I, and many others, are left thinking, “What coursework?” It had apparently escaped the notice of the Westminster Government that a certain Michael Gove did away with coursework years ago. Coursework was scrapped due to the perennial fear of ‘grade inflation’ – the notion that undeserving students would achieve top grades as supervised work, in their belief, would lead to unsuitable amounts of teacher input. Sure, this might be true, but the lack of coursework meant that in 2020, UK education departments had little to go by besides a teacher-given grade anyway combined with the student’s social background. And while exams are not likely to be cancelled again in the foreseeable future, this situation has demonstrated the many flaws of forcing FE students to put all their eggs in one A-level shaped basket. Even if ministers were to realise their mistake and reinstate coursework in most FE subjects, it would still come with the same criticism of grade inflation and the ease with which students can access top grades.
The problems with UK FE qualifications are therefore plain to see: they do not provide a well-rounded and holistic education, they only serve a single purpose, their focus on exams makes them glorified memory exercises, and the lack of a coursework element means that students have a very limited opportunity to prove themselves. Meanwhile, the persistent problems of apparent grade inflation, lack of interest in less desirable Arts subjects, and the lack of diversity within STEM subjects remain impervious to the various tinkering that education ministers effect every few years.
Unfortunately, these shortcomings can be felt far beyond secondary schools. The UK is, and has been for some time, infamous for being the worst in Europe for multilingualism. Moreover, as far back as 2015, a quarter of all UK graduates found themselves in non-graduate jobs. This, combined with the issues detailed above, paints a pretty bleak picture for the UK’s FE sector.
So, what is the answer?
I present to you the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program (IB): a qualification recognised by the lion’s share of universities across the world; already offered by 94 schools in the UK; and far more demanding and holistic than anything that the A-Levels and their Scottish equivalent could ever bring to the table. For those of you reading this who come from abroad or one of those 94 schools, this is old news. However, for those of you who may be unfamiliar with it, the rigorous and well-rounded examination provided by the IB excels the usual 2 hour-long waffling competition demanded by our current FE examinations. IB forces students to work with broad strokes, studying their native language, a foreign language, mathematics, a science, a humanities subject, and either a performative art or an extra subject from the aforementioned subject ‘groups’. This is combined with a stringently moderated 4,000 word essay (similar to the Extended Project Qualification), an introductory look at epistemology and critical thinking, and a personal growth element such as participation in voluntary or community activities. Even at first glance it is obvious that this program will create more well-rounded individuals than the dull, over-examined husks that the UK’s system spits out (myself included). Perhaps most importantly, it would force the education system to better teach foreign languages across the board, something our economy and society direly needs in this diverse, globalised world.
While the IB provides answers to many of the problems that A-Levels and Highers/Advanced Highers are fraught with – such as grade inlfation or the lack of girls taking STEM subjects – it is, of course, no silver bullet to our FE woes. The current over-emphasis on sending as many 18-year-olds as possible to university and a lack of viable vocational education would not be solved by the introduction of a more rigorous FE programme, and many less-academic students would still be left with seemingly no options at all. However, it has been apparent for many years that the current method of teaching and examining students aged 16-18 in the UK is unsustainable and not fit for purpose. Students, myself included, all too often are left with little to show for their A-Level grades besides a useless list of memorised facts and figures and a nervous twitch whenever they hear, “you may now turn over your paper”. Something badly needs to change, that change is the IB.