You may now turn over your papers
I have a little Radio 4 documentary being broadcast next Wednesday at 11.00 am (it was to have been after the lunchtime news on Sunday, but 'events" as they say have extended the news). It is called, like this post, 'You may now turn over your papers', and is a light hearted look at the whole culture of exams, from the dreams many of us still have about them to the processes of marking. The aim, in the process, is to raise a few bigger questions about examinations and why we take them quite so much for granted. But please don't believe the headlines like "Mary Beard slams exam factories". Beard doesn't slam anything, and in fact she thinks that people who believe they have 'the secret' to what we should, or should not, about the nation's education and the role of exams within it, are usually talking through their hat, even if well-meaning -- or trying to make a political point.
The truth is that everyone we talked to who was operating our exam system on the ground, from teachers to representatives of the exam boards, seemed to be doing their best, with the best of intentions (there's noone out there, so far as we could see, who is on a campaign to make children's or students' lives a misery). The spirit of our programme is not so much one of criticism, but of wonderment: wonderment that we invest so much time and money and stress (one English exam board alone uses 25,000 markers a year to grade more than 7,000,000 individual papers) into a system whose point and purpose we havent communally thought about enough. We all get far too exercised with tinkering with GCSEs, up-grading or down grading coursework, and give far too little attention to what exams are actually for, and what on earth we think we are testing.
I dont want to give away all the best bits of the programme, and I hope you'll come away with some wry, hopefully thought-provoking, views of both school and university exams. We look at both, and we have fun peeking at the exam papers of 100 years ago, at some outrageous attempts at bribery of examiners, while I also interview a comedian who confesses to a bit of naughtiness around his own exams (and I in return fess up to some of my own), and take a trip up to the roof of King's College chapel (you'll have to listen to see why . . . ).
But, after my exploration of exam culture, I did come to the conclusion that we were trying to do TOO MUCH with school exams -- not only testing the pupils, but also the schools and in some cases the individual teachers. No wonder, as many have observed before, that so much effort goes into getting children over the D/C borderline at GCSE, when until now the major criterion of success for a school was the percentage of its pupils getting the magic 5 GSCEs (including Maths and English) at Grade A* to C. To put that another way, it is highly predictable that a safe B candidate will get rather less of teacher's efforts than the one who, with an extra push could just cross the boundary into a C. (That's not a criticism of teachers by the way, it's logic.)
And I also got the feeling that we still haven't got our heads around the full implications of mass examining on the scale we now do it. We are the first generation in the UK (and I am coralling Scotland in here, perhaps a bit unfairly) to examine more or less all children. Old O levels and even more A levels were the preserve of an elite minority, quite unlike today's GCSEs etc. Of course that is, in very obvious ways, a good thing, but the effects on what and how you can examine when you are trying to do it in those industrial quantities are not often taken on board. When people quite understandably complain about the rigid mark schemes and the apparently tick box culture embedded in some modern exams, they are probably forgetting that if you are dealing with tens of thousands of markers, it's a lot easier if you have some pretty clear guidelines written down.
My lingering thought, though, was about all those dreams that so many of us still have, even in our 60s, about exams -- about turning up to the wrong exam, in the wrong language, or in the wrong room. I think all the people we talked to bar one (and he worked for an exam board, so perhaps he had become innured) confessed to very much the same style of dream. The terror lasts for ever in our heads. But is it in the heads of ALL of us? I found myself wondering whether everyone (with the exception of our exam board man) really does dream in this way. Do people who in real life fail exams dream about the terror? Or do they forget all about it and get on with their lives? Is it an odd 'perk'/punishment of those of us who actually did well and have profited from them. When we say "everyone" dreams about exams, do we actually mean, as often, 'people like us'? Confessions, please.