Exams aren’t everything, says Eton headmaster

“There is more to education than league tables,” says Tony Little

Any day now the A-level results will be out accompanied by the usual images of selected boys and girls jumping for joy, alongside politically slanted commentary that the exams show evidence of robust improvement and/or falling standards.


There will certainly be plenty of reference to our poor showing in international tests: a recent poll suggested nearly three quarters of parents are worried Britain is on the slide compared with Singapore, Shanghai and Finland. 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.

Just occasionally in the midst of this chorus of concern, a voice can be heard singing a different tune. Two teachers from a Lancashire primary school were widely reported for sending their 11-year-old pupils an American-inspired letter following their Key Stage 2 results. The message was warm and positive. It urged the children to enjoy their results but to be aware that “there are many ways of being smart”, such as painting a picture, dancing or being a thoughtful friend. What interested me was the public response. This message was either an overdue and necessary personal support of children, or a betrayal of their futures.

I have some sympathy with the criticism. We have a national tendency to underestimate what young people are capable of achieving academically, in some cases dramatically so, and our expectations should be high. We should allow no excuse for poor teaching. A sharp focus on performance is a good thing, but there is a great deal more to an effective and good education than jostling for position in a league table. The Lancashire teachers were right – there are many ways of being smart.

For a start, measuring only the easily measurable, such as exam results, can be misleading. There is a real risk that the measurable parts become more important than the whole. And we compound the problem by having an unimaginative exam system, little changed from Victorian times, which obliges students to sit alone at their desks in preparation fro a world in which, for much of the time, they will need t work collaboratively.

Exams of the kind used in international tests measure literacy, numeracy and scientific ability, all of which are important, and this year there has been the first attempt to evaluate creativity, but these tests do not come close to capturing the whole picture.

In China recently I spoke with the head of a top-performing school in Shanghai. He told me he felt his school system was heading for the edge of the cliff and did not know how to change direction. The system was stifled by the very demanding Gaokao exam (China’s equivalent of A-levels) that students take for entry to university. He was concerned that his students did not have the contextual skills to compete in a globalised economy – the ability to develop, amend and present an idea, the capacity to think laterally. And where did he look for inspiration? To Britain.

And here is the irony; we seem intent on creating the same straitjacket the Chinese are trying to wriggle out of. We should be wary of emulating Shanghai just as they themselves see some value in the liberal values of an all-round education – something we have tradition- ally been good at.

There is more. Most of us as parents want our children to become capable adults, able to look after themselves and their own families: but we want them to be good citizens, too. For me, John Milton summed up the virtues of citizenship rather well: we need people who are “skillful, just and magnanimous”. The skills we can, with ingenuity, find ways to measure and assess, but where would justice and magnanimity fit in an exam programme?

Let us stand up for robust academic rigour and applaud our young people for their achievements, 
but let us not confuse league-table success 
with a good education.


Tony Little is the headmaster of Eton College. A new eight-part series, The Educators, starts today at 4pm on Radio 4