Let’s scrap external exams

When it comes to education policy, we need blue sky thinking. And I think that scrapping external exams would be a fantastic example of this.

Let’s remind ourselves of some of the negative consequences of our exam system:

  1. Stress – Student wellbeing is considered collateral damage. Having yearly exams which have such a huge impact on your life is incredibly stressful, and I doubt that adults would cope any better than teenagers do. We are sacrificing our young people to a system which we know is harming their mental health, but which we persist with nonetheless.
  2. Teaching to the exam – With so much pressure on schools to produce good exam results, teachers are encouraged to focus on how to pass specific papers, rather than helping students learn. This leads to a narrow way of teaching, a focus on literal answers rather than creative thinking, and takes the enjoyment out of learning.
  3. Pigeon holing – Pupils have to choose which subjects they want to drop when they are very young, and these decisions can be hard to reverse. Many students regret the choices that they make at this stage, or pick classes because they think they have the best chance of getting good grades in them, rather than because they are interested in the subject.

So in light of these serious drawbacks, why do we persist with exams? Their primary function is to show which students are good at which subjects, so that future colleges, universities and workplaces can choose someone with the skills that they need.

But there are so many factors other than ability which sway a student’s exam performance: how they react to stress; their exam technique; if they work better during longer assignments; problems at home; if their parents can afford to pay for private tutors; if their teachers are any good in the first place. And there are so many skills which exams don’t even try to measure: people skills, research skills, communication skills, which are just as important as how well you perform in a written test.

Why have we accepted this trade-off so readily? Is it worth sacrificing our children’s mental health and stifling their creativity, so that they can be given a list of letters and numbers which probably don’t reflect their abilities anyway?

There are many other systems which universities and employers could use to select students. We could use a grade point average of all assignments, which would reduce the pressure of having to perform on one single day. Or teachers could write reports on student’s abilities, based on evidence of how they have worked with them over the course of a year. Or universities could set their own admissions tests – just like employers do in the real world.

None of these solutions are perfect, and I think that a mix of these approaches would probably work best. But all of them are better than a rigid system of external exams which students and teachers hate in equal measure.

Lib Dem members are always crying out for us to adopt radical liberal policies, which don’t cost money, and which would catch the public attention.

I think this would be a perfect example.

* Ben is a Councillor in Sutton, and the Vice Chair of the Environment & Transport Committee at Sutton Council. He has been a member of the party since the 2015 election, and used to work for the Sutton Liberal Democrats as a volunteer organiser. Ben now works for a charity promoting the greater use of Restorative Justice in the criminal justice system.

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  • Peter Hayes 20th Sep '18 - 1:00pm

    I’m old enough to remember when schools had a third year sixth to prepare candidates for OxBridge entrance exams. Rest of us went to ‘lesser’ universities based on A level results. Even then universities could make offers based on interview, but then candidates were few enough to allow interviews in the time available from application to exams.

  • Peter Watson 20th Sep '18 - 1:46pm

    Firstly, this is a very interesting and well-written article. It’s great when something thought-provoking like this appears on LDV.

    I agree with many of the points raised but can’t quite bring myself to agree with the conclusion of scrapping external exams (except perhaps in primary schools and more generally before 16). External exams (i.e. set independently of those doing the teaching), if they are the right sort at the right time (whatever that is!), feel like an important part of assessing and evaluating a child’s education, although as a parent and one-time student but no educational expert, I don’t have the right vocabulary to explain my discomfort about scrapping them!

    However, I do think the way schoolchildren are examined up to 18 should definitely be reconsidered. Since 2010 we seem to have gone backwards, reverting to a system of GCSEs and A-Levels that overemphasises exam performance, forces academic children to specialise before they truly have an appreciation of their interests, aptitudes and options, and which does not seem to offer much of a vocational alternative.

  • Peter Watson 20th Sep '18 - 1:58pm

    @Peter Hayes “I’m old enough to remember when schools had a third year sixth to prepare candidates for OxBridge entrance exams.”
    I recall that those seventh term entrance exams (?) seemed to give an unfair advantage to those with the means to defer going to university and to prepare (or be prepared!) for them. The experience of myself and a friend (back in the 1980s, both coming from a F&HE college) was that applying to colleges with a process of interviews and conditional offers gave us a more level playing field (although we both turned down our Cambridge offers – despite achieving the grades – for better options!).

  • Lorenzo Cherin 20th Sep '18 - 2:14pm

    Ben is motivational but not practical. This cannot take place because no country amongst the main or comparable do this in the assessing of their young people.

    You need have a portion of a grade external and not as subjective.

    We must prepare students for the reality of this world.

    Adults are judged. Exams can empower. They give each individual kid the moment , the our, or three, to show what they understand. I think it is best in combination with ongoing assessment, yet each aspect is important.

    If we have a society where every person is listened to, given what they need, able to slog noticed, fine, until then all it does as a proposal, if implemented, is say this false and lovely notion of the world is how it is.

    It is not. I am trying to change that, but nobody cares. Even in our party , you cannot be a candidate by running for election, like the greatest exponent of democracy, the US, no, you must attend awareness days, and be examined, themselves, the examining party authorities, allow you on an approved list.

    You cannot get a loan even for a terrific venture, without being examined, rather fully, by someone at the bank, then after all that, told, the system, rejected it.

    We can do better , should demand better, for adults. As adults we must. Then we can examine or not examine our kids and mean business. Literally.

  • James Marsden 20th Sep '18 - 2:33pm

    As a nation, we do not trust teachers. We will never scrap external, written, closed-book exams because we don’t trust teachers not to either inflate grades like fury or downright cheat under any other system. We didn’t let Gove get rid of coursework because of 16 year olds googling model essays, but because of teachers routinely “helping” pupils to the point of doing it for them. And this happened because the teachers’ jobs, the schools’ futures and the kids’ lives were seen as dependent on the exam grade.

    I do not love individual university admissions tests, because they will inevitably hugely favour candidates at schools where staff a) know the system and b) have time to coach. There is a place for them at Oxbridge where enormous effort goes into making tests accessible to all (and it’s nowhere near perfect), but imagine having a different one (varying according to subject area) for each of 100 universities, and which schools could afford to keep track of them!

  • Richard Underhill 20th Sep '18 - 3:28pm

    “Lorenzo Cherin 20th Sep ’18 – 2:14pm
    Ben is motivational but not practical. This cannot take place because no country amongst the main or comparable do this in the assessing of their young people.”
    Whatever the merits of this proposal, it will not happen until the first time, as with many other ideas.

  • John Marriott 20th Sep '18 - 4:17pm

    Scrapping external exams. Absolutely NOT! By all means have an element of assessment; but, as far as I know, nobody has come up with a better system of testing a candidate’s mettle than giving them a test. The problem as with most things is where you draw the line. Yes, you could argue that our students are tested too much: but the laissez faire approach advocated by Mr Andrew would be a recipe for disaster.

  • Life is full of stressful pressures and young people will gain from the experience. It is wrong to wrap them in cotton wool. However I agree that there should be other criteria as well so that their career is not decided by single exam.

  • William Fowler 20th Sep '18 - 4:36pm

    Possibly drop exams for some subjects and keep them for the basics? A lot of stuff could be taught in a more informal manner using dvds or interactive computer stuff rather than learning by rote (or a more modern idiom that kids will understand but perplex teachers) from text books (have not been in a classroom for 42 years so ignore me if I am hopelessly outdated).

  • Thanks all for your comments.

    I understand some of your points, but the idea that exams are needed to prepare teenagers for the real world is nonsense.

    The world of work is nothing like an exam paper. You don’t have to answer long lists of questions without Google. Your performance isn’t distilled into a single number based on a one-day test. Your abilities to interact with your co-workers are more important than recalling information on queue. Creativity and strategic thinking are important in the real world, not in exams.

    I have always found some people’s fetishisation of making teenagers suffer to prepare them for the big bad world very strange, given that the vast majority of adults never go through exams in their working life which are anything like as intense as the ones they do at school. I certainly have never felt that sort of pressure again – and I was an organiser for a snap General Election!

  • Peter Watson 20th Sep '18 - 6:05pm

    @Ben Andrew “Your performance isn’t distilled into a single number based on a one-day test.”
    I was struck by one of the very early changes to A-level exams under the Coalition: making it more difficult to resit modules in order to improve a student’s grade. Subsequent changes (still under a Coalition that included Lib Dems) to make A-levels non-modular and linear over two years went even further in this direction.
    It seemed to me that if a student took two, three or more attempts to get a better grade, surely that grade is still a good indication of how much the student had learnt by the end of the process. And if all-or-nothing exams at the very end of a course are such a great thing, why don’t all of the universities assess undergraduate students for degrees like that?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 20th Sep '18 - 7:16pm


    That is so, but the point is, we do compete in the world, and it is more precarious international competitveness, no doubt worth altering though


    I do not fetishise at all, many things make for exam stress, far worse, on the spot is frequently the everyday way, as a test of strength, yes, less exams, but no way are my views incompatible, with your views, my daily toil is making me think back to the ease of exams cpmpared to the trying to be enterprising with no funds!!1

  • Ed Shepherd 20th Sep '18 - 9:25pm

    Externally marked exams that are open to anyone are a way in which people from underprivileged or non-traditional backgrounds can compete with people from privileged backgrounds. Get rid of external public exams and you will find that students with well connected parents will ensure that their off spring submit immaculate coursework done for them and get glowing references from teachers eager to please from schools who know how to polish a CV. And exams are required in almost all jobs now. The person who answers the phone at an energy company, the driver of the JCB digging the road and the dentist who examines your teeth will all have to take tests to get and keep their jobs. Not many jobs left where you do not have to pass exams or at least tests.

  • One of the problems in our education system – perhaps the main one – is the never ending changes. We need stability. We need a long term plan. We need to design a process which will help to achieve that. The points made by Ben Andrew are important, but if implemented in the way that recent changes in England to GCSEs have happened would lead to chaos. I think by the way that if the exam system were scrapped we would find a system being created of exams for those who wanted them.
    As a Party we must start to think about what choice in education means. Does it mean that parents are free to choose a school, who are then supervised in minute detail by the government of the day, or does it mean real choice as to how their children are educated?

  • “The world of work is nothing like an exam paper. You don’t have to answer long lists of questions without Google. Your performance isn’t distilled into a single number based on a one-day test.”

    Sorry, but you’ve obviously not been involved with sales. When I stand up and present my proposed solution to a potential client, I need to be able to offer reasonable answers to ALL questions thrown at me, yes one of those answers might be “Let me get back to you on that”, but if all my answers are that…

    Everytime you get in a car you are expect to know ALL aspects of driving – or do you stop at the side of the road and google what each road sign means and how you should approach a roundabout?

    I think what has been totally missed is consideration of the school ethos and attitude of the staff. Being in the position of directly observing and comparing the differing performances of a consistently outstanding school and a borderline outstanding school; there is world of difference between the way the school is run, the attitudes of the teachers and the attitudes instilled in the pupils. I suggest instead of trying to return to the fudge of “no child can fail” to asking why, after so several decades of league tables and Ofsted inspection, why our (state) schools are still so very different.

    I can assure you what the consistently outstanding school does, isn’t rocket science, yet with a selected intake to ensure a normalised distribution of abilities, it is consistently getting results well above expectation and given the long list of out of school activities many students have, I can only conclude that they aren’t burdened with lots of homework.

  • Gareth Pearce 21st Sep '18 - 10:42am

    Agree with the problem but I don’t think your solution really follow from it. I think you kind of throw the baby out with the bathwater here…

    (a) Problem (3) isn’t resolved by your solution. (Actually I don’t think problem (3) really is that big of a problem. You don’t really drop that many subjects at 14 in most schools…)

    (b) If you’re going to use GPA over all assessments (I presume all assessments age 14-16) you’ve got a few problems:
    (bi) You’re going to need to massively up the number of internal tests in order to avoid problem (1) (I presume the idea here is to make each test not matter much so you don’t get stressed about them).
    (bii) If you’re doing bi, teaching to the test is even more of a problem.

    (c) GPA over all assessments is equally unfair on ‘late starters’ i.e. people who aren’t academically ready to be tested at 14 and need those extra couple of years for the teachers to help get them to that point.

    I think better solutions to the problem you outlined are:
    (d) Make exams skills based (at least for humanities and social science) rather than content based. I.e. history exam is an unseen source, english exam is an unseen poem, etc. This way there isn’t the stress of “I need to spend 8 hours a day revising” because ‘revision’ under this system would just be talking about the subject or practising the skill.
    (e) Return to high percentage coursework in courses, that allow for work over a course of weeks. Because we’re focusing on knowledge less, there’s less of a need to control the test environment. There are computer programs that can screen for plagiarism.
    (f) Reduce overall workload.
    (g) change the narrative surrounding exams. They are not the be all and end all of your life.

  • Some external exams are essential.

    The first thing to restore sanity is to scrap targets. Targets (of the sort used by government) drive perverse behaviour. In teaching that includes teaching to the exam and grade inflation – and anything else that will get a ‘good’ result. And even more damagingly, it soon become systemic because so many parties, OFSTED, the government etc., share an interest in producing ‘good’ results.

    And one way and another that makes targets a big source of unnecessary stress for everyone involved.

  • Old Liberal 22nd Sep '18 - 2:30pm

    @ Ben Andrew, Sadly the The world of work is often distilled into something a bit less than an exam paper – an annual appraisal interview. If you need Google to answer lots of questions in a subject you have been working on for a year or more you haven’t been learning on the job or been educated except in how to use Google. And most of all your performance is distilled into a single number (often just 1 to 5 – Grade 1 Outstanding – maximum 3-5% of staff to keep the favoured few; down to 5 Unsatisfactory – often minimum 10-15% of staff to get rid of the unwanted). That number is actually based on a couple of people’s opinions (your boss’s opinion and your boss’s boss’s opinion) driven by the criteria set by the organisation e.g. more grade 5s because we want to reduce staffing.

    Life is tough out there. Get used to it.

  • Peter Hirst 23rd Sep '18 - 5:26pm

    It’s future employers that want tests and want them to be discriminatory. But that is only the end result and before that schools should use a more supportive and encouraging culture. Pupils progress at varying rates through the educational system so to judge them at fixed points is like predicting the proverbial race between the hare and the tortoise.

  • Andrew Toye 24th Sep '18 - 2:18pm

    The thinking behind testing is that the ‘real world’ is nasty and brutish and we have to prepare young people for this depressing reality. Should’t we set out to change the real world so it’s not so nasty and brutish?

  • Samuel Weatherlake 25th Sep '18 - 6:36pm

    I think that scrapping external examinations completely is unrealistic for the reasons that other commenters have already outlined. However, we could certainly do away with GCSEs, given that everyone is now required to be in some form of education until the age of 18.

    As regards the exams themselves, I agree broadly with Gareth Pearce, although I would argue that even coursework has be done under externally supervised conditions to ensure that it really is the student’s own work. That said, there is no reason to restrict access to information or impose undue time pressure; the critical skill nowadays is knowing how to use information rather than memorise it or regurgitate it at speed.

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