This time of year should be a cause for celebration: students the world over have now received their GCSE and A Level examination results and are in a clear position to plan for their futures on the basis of all their hard work and commitment to study.
The professional examination bodies had carefully crafted papers to allow teaching staff to explore the breadth and depth of their subjects safe in the knowledge that a well-qualified and highly trained army of markers would be on hand to vindicate both their teaching as well as their pupils’ learning. At least that was the theory.
Despite our headline grades at both GCSE and A Level being among the very best in the world yet again this year I find myself cursing a system which has perverted the course of education.
Once upon time examinations were part of the process of education, a facilitator of learning, a means to end, but rather like money, examination grades have now become an end in themselves rather than a medium of exchange.
Pragmatic students who are well aware that every grade counts in their applications to super-competitive universities and courses the world over are being compelled to make subject choices not on the basis of what they enjoy but on the basis of where they do well.
Right now there are thousands of students who will be deciding to discontinue particular subjects at AS Level or A Level having achieved a lower than predicted grade in this summer’s public examinations.
At best these discrepancies in grades are the result of poorly trained markers but at worst they are the product of an imperfect examination system.
Take a cohort of students at our school, for example, who averaged 40% A* and 38% A grades this year across all their subjects at GCSE. Now consider how and why the same pupils scored only 8% A* in their English Literature exams.
Bear in mind that neither the exam content, the teachers nor the average intelligence of the cohort has changed significantly this year from previous years when students achieved up to 38% A* in English Literature.
The implications are not insignificant. Not only is it very clear that there is some highly irregular marking, which will take the school several weeks to appeal and the exam board some six weeks to rectify, we now have a raft of talented literature students who are no longer planning to pursue the subject at A Level because they did not secure a high enough mark at GCSE. The sad fact is that to some extent they are right to be thinking like that.
Educators have long since been the champions of character development, advocates of the cultivation of values and engineers of personal and social networks as much as they have been masters in the hunt for knowledge and yet they now find themselves as handmaidens of a system which does not care about those things, only black and white letter grades.
The examination system as it was once designed to be has long since ceased to exist. So at this time of year when we are all celebrating our school’s percentage of A*-C grades let us forget all that and remember to champion the real purpose of education: the development of character and the pursuit of happiness.
By: Michael Lambert, Headmaster of Dubai College,