Do today’s exams fail our children?

Do GCSEs and A-levels test things that are not very important and leave out things that are?

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I failed my eleven-plus. Did it damage me? Well yes, actually: I was publicly humiliated in The Sunday Times Magazine. People came up to me in the street and laughed. Family members asked what I had been playing at.

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So my advice to anyone taking an exam – particularly those in their 50s doing it for a newspaper wanting to take people down a peg or two – is to think twice. And don’t drink the bubbly they serve – in fiendishly large quantities – before the questions are revealed.

My dalliance with the eleven-plus is behind me now, but the experience came back to me this month as my twins took their GCSEs. What is the value of this process? To our children, and more widely to society?

In a radio documentary entitled You May Now Turn Over Your Paper, Cambridge classicist Mary Beard tackles the whole subject. She is sceptical about the role exams play and she begins by pointing a finger at the people who invented the damned things.

It’s all the fault of the Chinese. The ancient Romans rose and fell without recourse to exams. The British empire was largely built without them – at our finest universities students would argue in Latin at the end of their courses and the judges would announce a winner and that was that. Bliss.

But the Chinese insisted, in the seventh century, that rigour and fairness should be used for the imperial exams, which could see a candidate gain a good job for life. The exams lasted for three days and nights and occasionally people died during the ordeal: their bodies were wrapped in straw matting and tossed over the high walls surrounding the exam compound.

Which puts GCSE home economics into perspective. But our pale versions of the Chinese torture are still an attempt to do what the Chinese 
wanted: to separate the wheat from the chaff and give the chance for talent to shine through. And if you have been going through exam torment over recent weeks, Mary Beard’s programme is thought-provoking radio. What concerns her is that exams test things that are not very important and leave out things that are. They reduce our horizons.

An example: I tried to engage my son in a discussion about the Gulf War of 1991, which was on his GCSE history syllabus. I was there reporting for the BBC from Saudi Arabia and then Kuwait. And I reported on the context – I was on assignment in Moscow a year earlier when Saddam invaded Kuwait and I witnessed the Russian sense of confusion and impotence as George Bush senior led the diplomatic and later the military fightback.

My son looked nervous. Then embarrassed. “Dad, we don’t need to know that stuff.” Too much context. Too much detail. Frankly, if George HW Bush himself had popped round, his perspective would not have been welcome. You see, Bush would not have seen the mark scheme; and the importance of that document – available online for all GCSEs – is that it shuts out any irrelevant parental chat with the force of a Scud missile. My daughter was even more brutal when I remarked that Hitler’s invasion plans for England were ambitious given no one had managed the feat since 1066. “Dad, no way am I going to get a mark for mentioning 1066.”

Well, maybe not. But worth a passing thought? Cue withering look. Not when you have ten subjects to conquer in a month of controlled spewing of temporarily mastered facts. And always the threat: crack and you’ll find yourself wrapped in straw and tossed over the wall.
So best of luck with your results in August. Me, I’m going to arrange a Latin-language argument with John Humphrys. In togas.

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You May Now Turn Over Your Paper is on Sunday 1:30pm on Radio 4.