A Future of Schools Without Examinations?

Matthew Farthing, Principal of Nord Anglia International School Dubai, shares his thoughts as to the future of examinations in this special feature for WhichSchoolAdvisor.com.
A Future of Schools Without Examinations?
By Jenny Mollon
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Over the past two weeks we have seen Summer 2021 season examinations cancelled in England and Wales, and the exam board OxfordAQA cancel international GCSE examinations. What will come next, in both the short and long term?

Sian Griffiths, Education Editor of the UK newspaper, The Sunday Times, stimulated the discussion in an article this week, writing that;

“Schools seize on ‘perfect time’ to explore a future free of GCSEs. Heads of two secondaries — one with links to the royal family, aim to show that pupils can thrive without exams. Two new schools, one from the man behind the phrase “bog standard comprehensive”, the other from the group of private schools that educates Prince George, are to challenge the belief that teenagers should sit exams at 16.”

Well, I am not quite sure that ‘bog standard’ means in the context of our children’s schools (nor what particular authority may be held by a school with links to the British Royal Family!) but the topic is certainly worthy of discussion.

The detail of the article explains that the two schools (both of which are about to open a secondary phase) will not offer GCSEs unless parents insist upon it (a decision which, of course, leaves the door open to offer GCSEs should they so decide!). I hope that in my own article, I can offer some understanding of the value of examinations, and present the case of why they should be maintained.

At the same time, I would like to offer a deeper understanding of other ways that we may begin to monitor student progress, and how we might create still better structures to educate the children who are entrusted in to our care. Within this crisis, there are many exciting opportunities that can be embraced.

First of all, let us survey what we know regarding examinations for the end of this academic year.

The only certainty comes from the US College Board who are clear at the moment that exams will take place.  On the British curriculum front, GCSE and A level students in England and Wales will receive Teacher Assessed Grades, after examinations were cancelled by the UK government.

The international exam board, OxfordAQA, have said that they will not be holding exams in international schools as they do not feel that they can achieve fair comparability with the UK’s ‘Teacher Assessed Grades’ approach. This may well put pressure on fellow exam boards Cambridge and Edexcel to follow suit.

The International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) are trying to find a healthy compromise. Despite that, there remains uncertainty as they seem to be trying to offer choice to schools that best suits their specific local context. This may mean offering schools the choice of either taking the exam route or submitting school predictions for the IBO to scrutinise and ratify.

Based upon the above, it is clear that the problem we all face is to do with standardisation, and with the assumption that externally marked exams is the fairest (and perhaps, only) way that this can be achieved.

Leading on from this, is the view that with standardised assessment schools may be judged to see how ‘good’ they are. The truth is that the best schools are the ones that show the greatest individual student improvements, yet…still, the schools who are judged to be the best are the ones that show the best absolute results.

Looking ahead

As an educator, I have to declare my own professional reservations with how we are expected to engage with this game. With testing and examination destabilised, the tyranny of judging every child from an average point may subside and we can begin to personalise learning more effectively. The question is: are we ready for this?

Where to start? Well, perhaps if we are to rethink our examinations, we begin with reviewing our curriculum and how it is timetabled (with a close look at the dominance of the core subjects of English, Mathematics and Science), then we may begin to explore some very exciting potential for the future of education.

Where does that ‘potential for the future of education’ lie? What should parents look for? I would suggest many of the things that I know we do so well at NAS Dubai.

Outside of examination results, look for:

  • How does the school develop curiosity, academic inquiry and creativity? How is that evidenced in children’s achievement?
  • How important is physical activity, not just sport but outdoor activities, expeditions, the Duke of Edinburgh Award and direct experiences that develop resilience, teamwork safety awareness and contingency planning as well as physical competence?
  • What does the school expect of students with regards involvement in the visual and performing arts both at the level of performance and personal response?
  • How is the school involved in technology to support learning, do students learn to understand the potentials and the dangers online? Are students brought up to learn to code? What artificial intelligence if the school engaging to support learning and monitor progress? How does the school manage its data?
  • To what extent has the school developed links and partnerships with business and other institutions? Do these links let students understand the realities of work and the sort of professional opportunities that will grow and shrink in the years ahead.
  • What does the school do in terms of its social outreach, philanthropy and good works? How deep is the learning here and how is the understanding developed through visits and specialists coming into the school to support learning working together with the teachers?

For all of the above (all so important) presentations, coursework, video presentations, the submission of collaborative projects, evidence of experiences outside of school as well as in school may all be included as parts of a student portfolio of achievement.

As for the exams, I believe they certainly still have their place as well. Exams are a moment in a student’s life, which teaches that sometimes we all share the same starting point as we sit alone in the isolation of a timed exam. While we may not always have prepared as well as we could, the process of revision teaches students to juggle complex arrangements and to prioritise their efforts to achieve the best grades possible. At NAS Dubai, we watch as our students develop great resilience as they work under pressure. When the results come, we see them reflect on their many successes as well as think about how to do better next time. Our students learn much from mistakes as well success.

Exams also teach students to work to deadlines while maintaining healthy lifestyles as they revise and rest up ready for the exam. Then, on the day of the exam itself some strange and special internal clock is triggered that teaches them how to work to very tight deadlines. Without doubt, these are life skills that are being developed here, no matter what the subject is.

So when we look at the future of examinations, let us all enjoy the discussion and consider what we want from our future schools, and what is the best for students in our schools in Dubai and around the world.

If we are to make changes to our curriculum, and to the way that it is assessed then consensus and compromise are key. To me, this is not an ‘either or’ discussion, but rather an ‘and we could also do’ challenge.

I am sure that the competence to find these answers resides in our profession and in the great schools that abound in Dubai. The clock is ticking now – it is a long time since lockdown first came and soon to be a year since the first exams were cancelled. The longer this continues the less confidence we all have in the system that has served us well for so many years, yet which may now be begging for professional reform.

Yours, a humble Principal of a school not ‘bogstandard’ nor with particular links to the British Royal Family. 

Matthew Farthing, Principal, Nord Anglia International School, Dubai.

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