Exam reform needs to prepare pupils for world

STEVE CANAVAN: My condition is a right old pain in the neck

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Over the last few weeks a lot has been said about the government’s laudable aim of reforming the exam system.

An awful lot has also been said about what shape reform might take and there has been some much-needed, frank discussion of issues such as grade inflation.

The eventual future of the exam system in England will take time to form, but there are some things which we can say for sure already.

The first is that young people are working harder in our schools than ever before, guided by probably the best ever generation of teachers. Certainly the teachers and students I meet in east Hampshire work incredibly hard and a number of schools are doing really interesting innovative things.

But there are issues in the exam system which need to be addressed. We covered some of them with the Education Select Committee in our recent report, which follows a year-long inquiry.

I do believe there have been real improvements in attainment, but on top of this there has been grade inflation, and that erodes confidence in qualifications. That lets down pupils and teachers and makes things more difficult for employers and universities.

The GCSE league tables put great pressure on schools and can create perverse incentives which see some students steered towards courses that will score highest in the tables rather than those which will benefit them most.

Some have claimed the reforms the government are looking at would create a two-tier system, but the truth is we have a two-tier system now, one which leaves 40 per cent of young people without valuable qualifications.

I don’t believe the government is proposing a return to the past. What we must do is build a system that is fitting preparation for the global economy the next generation will have to work in and we as a country have to compete in. As well as reforms to exams at 15/16, I have also been arguing that we need to find improved ways to engage students in key subjects such as maths and English, even if they have struggled pre-16.

What we must bear most in our minds is while we want good results for all, those results are not an end unto themselves, they must have weight in the larger world – otherwise our exam system is just cheating our students.