Exams are pointless regurgitation - there has to be a better way

EDITOR'S BLOG: It's A levels results week and businesses increasingly don't care.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 25 Aug 2015

It’s exam results week. A sense of dread fills 16-18 year olds across the land (and their parents aren’t too at-ease, either). Some 38 years after I sat in the school gym to take them I still endure the odd nightmare about my O levels. The grades - 4 As, 4 Bs and a C in both Physics and Chemistry - were sort of OK. But you hardly meet a kid these days with fewer than 10 A*s in their GCSEs. So yes, I have to believe there has been shocking grade inflation.

O and A level results were almost the entire focus of my teenage life, with the odd time out to mope about girls or listen to early period Genesis. A levels were more interesting. One felt less force-fed with facts, more permitted to read around and think a bit. And I was fortunate to receive inspirational teaching so impressive that what awaited me at university proved a grave disappointment 12 months later.

We fret terribly about exam results in the UK. Beat ourselves up that our kids are less well educated than the Chinese (I doubt this very much). League tables are endlessly scrutinised. Exam-flunking schools get ‘special measures’ and The Trunchbull is called in. The system is gamed: pupils cheat, teachers cheat. And each year we witness the same mid-August shots of kids being forced by tabloid snappers to jump into the air.

I didn’t jump. Just felt an intense sense of relief as my father read the results down the phone to me quivering in a call box on the harbour at Broadstairs. (I recall my father, by the way, cheerfully recalling the fact that at some exam or other he took the guy sat next to him wet himself as he opened the paper.)

There simply must be a better way to establish academic ability among the young. But how do you achieve this? Coursework is aided by parents - giving the educated middle classes yet another leg-up. The internet means that long coursework essays can be cut and pasted into place without much original thought or research. The wealthy can even buy bespoke degree work from penniless PhD students specifying if they want it done to 2.1 or, more improbably, first class standards.

So we’re stuck with exams. The three hour panicked regurgitation of memorised stuff. Until something better comes along. And we shouldn’t be surprised that meanwhile employers are working out other ways to find the stars in the firmament.

Later this week MT will be bringing you the O/A level results (or lack thereof) achieved by a number of leading British business people, Martin Sorrell and Nicola Horlick included. It’s a timely reminder that, when it comes to business success, strong school exam results are just one of many ways to skin the cat.

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