Exams. Just the word is enough to put many adults into fear mode. 

In the UK we have used fundamentally the same system of assessment in schools since public examinations were created in 1858, when two examinations were introduced to schools, the Junior (under 16yrs) and Senior (under 18yrs) exams. These exams were requested by schools in order to help them assess the students and Oxford and Cambridge Universities created them and they were sat in schools, village halls or church halls.

More than 150 years on and schooling has changed beyond recignition.

When these first exams were introduced education for many children was not accessible and certainly wasn’t compulsory. Most children from poor backgrounds would have been working rather than learning at school. Education was a luxury for the few who could afford to both pay the fees and lose the income from their children being at work themselves. 

That is far from the only change though.


When exams were introduced our whole approach to education was vastly different. Children of all ages sat in rows, usually with every child in the same classroom working from the youngest at the front to the oldest at the back. Corporal punichment was accepted as an essential part of learning and education was about learning by rote not encouraging independent, inquisitive thought. There was certainly no moving around the classroom, exploring their surroundings and very little creativity. Children were to be seen and not heard and were very definitely second class citizens in most families.

Over the years we have changed our pedagogy dramatically. We now celebrate difference and encourage children to think outside the box. We nurture their personalities and teach them the importance of critical thinking and not just regurgitating everything they are told.

Yet our exam system is fundamentally the same as it has always been.

Do exams go against the modern ethos of education?

More than just being a little dated though, does our education system go directly against the rest of our school system? 

In lessons throughout the year we encourage children to be creative and think around issues, then we have to teach them how to answer the questions in exams just the way they need to in order to get the marks they need.


There is no wonder so many teachers feel they must teach to test in order to get the best results for their students. There are very few exams which allow the flexiblity which we know is important in education. Gone are the days when we needed rows of workers in factories or typing pools to all conform and do as they are told. The modern world needs people who can problem solve, think outside the box and be confident to try new things. Many of the exams that we use to show how well a student has learned, fail to test any of these things. They test memory, recall and an ability to stick to a formula. 

In addition to this aspect of the examination system being a little dated, the last two years schools and exams have been disrupted greatly and most children achieved the results they truly deserved. Last year the results were purely based on previous results and teacher assessment. this meant that the students who had worked consistently hard throughout their time at school got the results they truly deserved, whether they panicked on the day or not. Unfortunately some students didn’t do as well as they might have done if they had taken the exams, because they were relying on cramming before the exams to bring their grades up and they didn’t get that opportunity. In future years many students will learn from this though, hopefully, and work consistently during the length of their course, which can only be a good thing for everyone. 


Younger children

Of course the younger children were also affected by assessments being cancelled. Has this had any impact on the children though? Well, not a negative one, that’s for sure. Many people will argue that the assessments sat before going up to high school are important to give the high school an idea of the children’ ability. In reality, high schools reassess them when they start and many children have a mental growth spurt around this age and achieve very different results when they start high school than they did in primary school. There is definitely an argument that the assessments taken in primary school are more about assessing the teachers than they are assessing the children.  

Children don’t learn in a linear way. They have mental growth spurts just as they have physical growth spurts. They may struggle one year because they have something happening at home or because they are growing rapidly and they are struggling to concentrate. That is no reflection on the teachers. Many generations passed through primary school with little more than a weekly timestables and spellings test, I did, and it didn’t do us any harm at all.


Sadly much of the stress and anxiety children experience at school is due to assessments. Whilst I am not suggesting that we stop testing our children all together, there must be a better way to support our children and ensure that the piece of paper they carry with them out of school is a true respresentation of their abilities and talents. Since I was at school myself, long before I had any understanding of the impact of mental health on learning, I have been aware that some students weren’t achieving their potential due to stress. We had one girl in our school who got so anxious that she couldn’t hold a pen to write her answers. She was incredibly intelligent, but exams made her so scared that she had to do all her exams wearing cotton gloves. 

What we understood less then, was that the impact of this stress wasn’t just affecting her physical ability to complete her assessment, it was also impacting her memory recall, her problem solving ability and so much more. She was in a permanent state of fight, flight or freeze and that is a thoroughly distructive place to try to sit an exam in.

We can teach our children strategies to help them control their biological responses to exams all day long, but at some point surely it makes sense to stop and think about whether we actually need to be subjecting them to this stress in the first place?

Surely now is the perfect time to stop and think about our assessment system in the world. We have had to change countless things in schools this year so why not use this as a catalyst for having a really meaningful look at the whole education system. Starting with the exams makes perfect sense to me.

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