Battle in Print: The debate over examinations is little more than a War of the Poses

Mark Taylor, 20 November 2007

Critics of tests and examinations - apparently forces of good in a heartless world - are everywhere. They claim that children are ‘over-tested’ because they face national tests at ages 7, 11 and 14, followed by further national examinations at 16 (GCSEs), 17 (AS-levels) and 18 (A-levels or ‘equivalents’). The General Teaching Council (GTC) suggests that this ‘over-testing’ causes school children stress. This view is backed up by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), whose chief executive, Ken Boston, has complained of a growing culture of teaching to the test. Similarly, the Institute of Physics, the Institute of Educational Assessors, the Royal Society and the Children’s Commissioner have all weighed in against tests.

Education researchers concur. Paul Black and Dylan Williams have popularised the concept of ‘Assessment for Learning’. Commonly known as AFL, this approach emphasises the need for more diagnostic ‘formative assessment’, which is said to help students improve, and proposes that there be less of a focus on the terminal or ‘summative assessment’ of achievement (Black et al. 1998). Other academics have highlighted the failings of the current testing regime. Alan Smithers of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University notes the fall in UK state sector standards compared with other countries and observes that the high-performing private sector might be benefiting from freedom from government interference (cited in Mansell 22.6.2007). Likewise, Peter Mortimore, one time director of the Institute of Education, has gone as far as to call for the GCSE to be scrapped entirely, calling it ‘superfluous’. As an alternative, Mortimore suggests that there might be fewer ‘high stakes’ assessments (Mortimore 5.6.2007). All in all, a ringing set of criticisms by the height of summer 2007, summed up by Independent journalist Deborah Orr, who claimed there was a tyranny of testing, leading to a ‘cult of the average’ (Orr 8.8.2007).

The defenders of testing

Defenders of testing are far thinner on the ground. In defence of testing are - surprise, surprise - the government and the examination boards. For the government, Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, has stated (perhaps predictably) that A-levels and GCSEs have not ‘dumbed down’ and that standards in fact continue to rise. According to Balls, the new functional skills qualification, which will form the core of the new work-related Specialised Diplomas, will raise standards yet further.

Meanwhile, the schools minister Andrew Adonis has taken on his critics directly: ‘The idea that we are overtesting our children isn’t a view the government accepts. On the contrary, seeing that children leave primary school up to standard in the basics in literacy and numeracy is the highest priority of the education system’ (cited in Meikle 11.8.2007).

As for the examination boards, they are largely silent, with the exception of Jerry Jarvis, managing director of Edexcel, who recently broke cover to point out that the technology is now here (called ‘ResultsPlus’) to enable students, teachers and heads to access test scores online and work out how they can do better - or even complain about poor teaching compared with the national average (BBC News 10.7.1997). In sum, examinations are today defended in rather arid and technocratic terms, as if they were little more than a mechanism for managing student performance.

A war of the poses

At first glance this debate does seem to have clear boundaries, but on closer inspection it becomes evident that these boundaries are in fact porous. For example, the GTC and QCA, who both oppose the government on some of its testing policies, generally agree about the importance of personalised learning and functional skills, both of which are now being worked up into examination objectives (see GTC 2007; QCA 2007).

Similarly, the government has already begun the process of breaking up the current system of testing by age, with a two-year trial of testing ‘when ready’ in 10 Local Authorities. Here the QCA and the government appear to have a broader but less publicised aim of re-orientating the entire assessment structure around interchangeable credits and units in a system based on lifelong learning. This will replace the traditional system, which was organised around universal national testing at the end of key educational phases, such as 16, when students leave schools, and 18, when some go to university.

In short, the debate as presented is really a parody, strong on soundbites and psychology (‘stress’, ‘teaching to the test’, ‘league tables’ and ‘record results’) and weak on educational theory (if ‘personalised learning’ can be so dignified). Indeed, the exams debate, such as it is, appears to gain energy from its growing distance from an understanding of what a systematic education might consist of and the place of assessment within this system.

It might be better to sum up the two ‘opposing’ positions as follows:

* The critics of testing and examinations believe in ‘experience’ or ‘learning’ as the driver of education. Consequently, they favour personalised self-examination. Their antipathy towards universal standards is expressed in their preference for the more palatable and less aggressive term ‘assessment’ over ‘examination’;

* The defenders of testing and examination - to put it simply - believe in ‘testing’ or ‘examinations’ per se as the driver of education. They do not appear to believe in much else.

What follows from these positions? Examinations, for their critics, are seen as separate from the education they are supposed to measure. Instead, they are interpreted as potential destroyers of childhood innocence. Meanwhile, examinations, for their defenders, are equally separate from the education they are supposed to measure.

As their principal defender, the government appears confused about what exams are for and merely postures about their usefulness in measuring ‘performance’ and ‘standards’. The widely misunderstood ‘liberation’ of the QCA from government control by Ed Balls on 26th September merely confirms this point. In other words, both defenders and detractors isolate examinations from both knowledge and education.

In this light, the frequently criticised ex-Chief Inspector of Schools Chris Woodhead might have had a point when he wrote in 2002 that the debate on standards was a sham (Woodhead 2002). (Footnote 1). Unfortunately, however, Woodhead’s insights stopped there. He did not pursue the question of how such a formulaic examinations debate came to effectively institutionalise itself.

An empty debate explained

One of the reasons for this increasingly stagey War of the Poses is not so much a cult of the average - although that is undoubtedly true - so much as an overstated and overly dramatic ‘cult of the now’. Contemporary discussions of assessment assume that life in the twenty-first century is going to be more subject to change than life in any other century. As a result, it is presumed that the archaic examinations system must change either technically or psychologically to reflect ongoing social change. Three academics encapsulated this view in 2002 when they called for ‘twenty-first century assessment’ to aim to ‘empower’ pupils as learners, focus on ‘the self’ and assess long-term ‘dispositions’ more than short-term performance (Weeden et al. 2002).

Arguments such as those outlined above combine with an unstated (but widely empathised with) aspiration to liberate children from ‘examination totalitarianism’. These sentiments can often be superficially compelling, especially given the popularity of notions of youth fragility that the government has so assiduously promoted with its ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda.

To challenge this climate, educators must shake the debate out of its complacency, as much would in fact be lost if the traditional system of examinations was abandoned. One way of doing this is to introduce some historical and educational perspective (Footnote 2).

A short history of examinations

When competitive public examinations (for schoolboys) were argued for in the Britain of the 1850s, they were designed to attack patronage and corruption in British society and give educational merit a democratic chance against the entrenched elites of the day. To be frank, they were noble in spirit and extremely progressive politically (Footnote 3).

John Stuart Mill even became involved in the debate. In On Liberty he developed a proposal for a compulsory education, with an examination system that would be designed to prevent the state exercising ‘an undue influence’. For this reason he suggested that ‘only matters of fact should be examined in the controversial subjects of religion and politics’ (Montgomery 1965: 243). Mill’s aim was to prevent the state from interfering with religion, thus affirming the view of an earlier writer, J. S. Booth, who had called for instruction to be the province of the people but examination to be the province of the state (38).

Returning to the present, we seem to be getting these two distinct areas - instruction and examination - confused. In truth, no one in educational or political authority seems sure about what they want to examine, who they want to examine, or how they want to examine.

Public examinations: fair, impartial, developmental

Without a clear separation between examiner, teacher and student, one that assumes different levels of subject knowledge, it is impossible to develop a coherent system of examination, or indeed education. The general confusion over these roles today is evidenced in the proposed reforms and the recent incidents of teacher cheating. For these reasons, the increasing formalisation of the AFL approach should not be taken as indicative of new insights into examinations. Despite the fact that AFL does contain some useful approaches to ‘learning’, its success is much more related to the fact that it perfectly captures the zeitgeist of modern English education, where learning is increasingly viewed as ‘lifelong’ and educators are averse to putting students under pressure. But how can examinations really matter when they no longer urgently mark (from the child’s viewpoint) distinctive stages of intellectual development at distinct times of the year? And how can public knowledge be examined when learning has become personalised?

Examinations, if truly understood and effectively argued for, can exemplify many excellent characteristics, which should inspire both teachers and students alike. At best, examinations encapsulate the need to memorise and recapitulate the underlying principles of subject knowledge at the start of the exam, and call for their development and interconnection towards the end. Viewed in this way, written examinations should be valued intellectually and creatively, as well as pragmatically and technically. Indeed, there is no better intellectual ‘performance’ than a well-run examination in a school hall, from the minute the students enter (in silence) to the minute that they leave (and chatter outside). Further, the exam process encapsulates the public virtue of honesty and the public vice of cheating, which serves as a useful initiation into adulthood. Examinations are fair, impartial and developmental.

Of course, the effective use of examinations requires that adults both inside and outside schools believe in them as a worthwhile process: one that expresses the integrity of scholarship and the integrity of ourselves as educators. The alternative that is being proposed is the increasingly episodic and demeaning ‘personalised’ testing, a ‘small sized credits’ approach, which does not really seem to matter to anyone - except your inner examiner.

Personalised assessment also potentially breaks the still tenuous link between the state school system and the elite universities - except for a few. In fact, there are echoes here of a return to the medieval approach, when the universities used examinations only to raise their own standards. The skeletal - one might call them personalised - government structures of the time according to one writer did not require public examinations, except (in a loose way) for guild-membership, knighthood or the priesthood (see Morris 1961). Admittedly, all three vocations need refreshing today. Perhaps the Balls Diplomas might play this role.

Towards a rigorously examined future

Genuine education requires an intellectually coherent decision about what is to be taught and examined academically. This is not what is currently on offer. Only Martin Stephen, the High Master of St. Paul’s School, has made any attempt to reinvigorate the discussion. He argues that ‘the dangerous drift towards government control of examinations, with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in effect a wholly-owned government subsidiary, has meant that exam standards suit what the government can comfortably provide, not what the country needs’ (Stephen 12.8.2007).

Although Stephen has now been proved wrong on the question of ownership, he may still be right about the standards. Indeed, it may not even make a difference who owns the QCA. If the debate can be broken open further, it might enable the case for examinations and tests as coherent expressions of the logic of a well-planned and executed academic curriculum to be made once again. There is no need to get sucked into a debate about whether the exam corrupts the curriculum or vice versa - as long as the curriculum itself is worth teaching.

Are the contemporary critics and defenders of examinations merely the latest form of the entrenched elites of the past? Do they have the intellectual and moral vision to root examinations in strong subject knowledge? Are they ahead of the Victorians in tender loving care but short on educational aspiration? Are they returning to the Middle Ages in their appeal to personalised assessment? Has all this prevarication and rhetorical posturing led to the downgrading of genuine examinations in favour of multiple choice, behaviour management and dispositional timewasting? And have they failed to see that an examination can intellectually and morally develop those who are examined?

Contemporary society is ill at ease with the rigours of public examinations and seems incapable of conceptualising their relationship to education. This really is a society in need of a searching examination.


Mark Taylor is a secondary school history teacher with a particular interest in the politics and the history of education. He regularly attends the IoI Education Forum and contributes to the IoI Education Forum Opinion section.


1. Although in favour of national testing (‘the argument that children are now over-assessed and that you do not fatten a pig by weighing it is ridiculous’), Woodhead (2002) pointed to weaker syllabus expectations of students, procedural changes such as the introduction of coursework, increased modularity and lowered grade expectations as symptoms of the problem rooted in the abandonment of examining ‘the best that has been thought and written’.

2. For example, it has been long forgotten that teachers were formerly subjected to some written examinations as part of their training.  The system was only abandoned after World War Two when shortages of teachers led - correctly in the circumstances - to the increase of mature entrants to the profession and a willingness to take experience rather than subject specialism. Unfortunately, the expediency became permanent and new teachers are not examined properly on either their subject knowledge or their theory of knowledge.

3. The reformers were up against the likes of the poet Wordsworth (even though he died in 1850) who had bunked out of his Cambridge tripos (undergraduate degree) because of the envy generated by competitive exams (see Montgomery 1965: 243). Wordsworth aside, E.E. Kellett put it this way in a 1936 memoir: ‘If, in fact, I was asked what, in my opinion, was an essential article of the Victorian faith, I should say it was “I believe in examinations”’ (cited in Roach 1971: 3). Roach added: ‘the victory of competitive examinations provides an exemplification of the new ways of looking at politics and administration which developed in England between 1840-70’ (10). What do our own debates say about us?


BBC News (10.7.1997). ‘Pupils may get full exam feedback’. BBC News website.

Black, P. and D. Wiliam (1998). Inside the Black Box. London, NFER Nelson.

GTC (2007). Teachers explore personalising learning at national GTC seminar. General Teaching Council for England (GTCE).

Mansell, W. (22.6.2007). ‘Blair’s end of term report: room for improvement’. Times Educational Supplement.

Meikle, J. (11.8.2007). ‘Drilling pupils for exams wastes time, says watchdog’. Guardian.

Montgomery, R. J. (1965). Examinations. London, Longman.

Morris, M. (1961). ‘A historian’s view of examinations’ in S. Wiseman (ed.) Examinations and English Education. Manchester, University of Manchester.

Mortimore, P. (5.6.2007). ‘Costly and divisive’. Guardian Unlimited.

Orr, D. (8.8.2007). ‘We are crushing potential with a tyranny of testing - and a cult of the average’. Independent.

QCA (2007). The need for greater personalisation and innovation. Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA).

Roach, J. (1971). Public Examinations in England 1850-1900. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Stephen, M. (12.8.2007). ‘Our schools the “best ever”? Politicians have failed and failed again’. Sunday Telegraph.

Weeden, P., J. Winter and P. Broadfoot (2002). Assessment: What’s in it for schools? London, Routledge.

Woodhead, C. (2002). The standards of today and how to raise them to the standards of tomorrow. London, Adam Smith Institute.

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