Palms sweaty, pacing up and down, mind racing.

I took two sets of national exams from the time I was 12 until the age of 18. Each set was an extremely stressful time for me, with many tantrums and a huge sigh of relief at the end. It would have been three sets, but I sat the most challenging series out because of the lockdowns.

There have been reports about the difficulty of the most recent SATs papers and GCSE students are about to sit their first exams in a collection of over twenty in total. So, what better time to reflect on the efficiency and usefulness of the three major sets of national exams almost every adolescent has to sit?

The SATs Factor

Testing children nationally at the ages of 7 and then again at 10 or 11, instinctively feels ridiculous. Yet the absurdity continues when we find out that not all students have to sit these exams. Those at independent primary schools are exempt from the Key Stage 2 testing in literacy, mathematics and SPAG (spelling, punctuation and grammar). Whilst the importance of standardised assessment should be recognised in allowing parents and councils to monitor a school’s progress, there must be a better way to do this.

SATs entrench existing inequalities. Wealthier children have an undeniable advantage. Only  46 per cent of pupils on free school meals passed their year six SATs in 2018, compared to 68 per cent of other students. One can only imagine the effect of successive lockdowns on increasing the educational inequality gap.

SATs exams lead to a narrowing of the curriculum and allow independent schools to storm ahead,  focusing their efforts on preparing their students for secondary school. For the majority of primary school students, the jump from three tested subjects in year six to over ten in year seven is bound to be too big of a leap. A national curriculum of recommended learning would be a better alternative to SATs. This should ideally focus on equipping students with a variety of transferable skills to prepare them for secondary school.

Jurassic GCSEs

Pre-lockdown, the debate surrounding the future of GCSE exams was very much at the forefront of educational discourse. Revealingly, the chair of the education select committee, Robert Halfon, called the exams ‘pointless’ and proposed replacing them with a national baccalaureate.

According to some, the SATs system has created a ‘forgotten third’ which is the proportion of pupils who do not pass their Maths and English assessment tests. Similarly, GCSEs leave certain pupils at a considerable disadvantage, with poorer students being ‘twice as likely’ to fail key GCSEs.

Nearly a fifth of students will score grade 4s in their GCSEs, the lowest pass possible. Having tutored GCSE-level Maths, it is not the case that those scoring low are lazy, stupid or incapable. The GCSE Maths curriculum includes topics far beyond what is reasonable for every student to learn, incorporating complex algebra and geometry — only useful if students want to study the subject in subsequent years.

So what’s to be done with the GCSE curriculum? Firstly, a wider acceptance of taking fewer subjects is a start. Independent schools often challenge pupils to take over ten subjects, but the reality is that most pupils struggle to pass five.

Arguably, if a pass in Maths and English is compulsory, then the exams should reflect a level of utility and practicality. A potential English curriculum could include writing cover letters, analysing news articles and engaging with modern forms of literature. A Mathematics curriculum could include calculating tax percentages and learning basic budgeting techniques. For students who want to pursue these subjects further, extended courses should be made available and act as a bridge between GCSEs and A levels — but only for those who want and need them.

Demanding A Levels

The inequality in national exam results continues when we reach A Levels. The drop-out rate among disadvantaged students from ages 16 to 18 is almost 15 per cent. The problem plausibly begins with the absurd step of having to study up to ten subjects, only to then narrow that down to three. A focus on diversified attention is replaced almost immediately with one more in-depth and detailed learning. Once again, students end up being stretched beyond capacity, but this time, between three or four very similar subjects.

With 1 in every 4 school grades being reported as wrong by Ofqual, the effectiveness of these pre-university tests must surely be questioned. In 2022, to get a Grade A in A-level Maths with the board AQA, students needed to score an average of 57 marks out of the available 100. Hypothetically then, a student with an A grade awarded by AQA can pursue a degree in Mathematics despite knowing scarcely 60 per cent of the content. Extend this to the sciences and medicine, and it’s no wonder university students struggle with their courses.

The Future of Assessment

Three sets of national exams. Three subjects. Then Ten. Then three again. For many, each set is yet another stress-inducing period in their lives and for others, these assessment phases present little bother.

What is clear, is that students and educational opportunities differ and the assessment system must reflect this. In short, we need a new system. This system must not fail those who are already disadvantaged. It must equip all students with the skills required for achieving their next level of learning, whatever that may be. Ultimately, we need a system that encourages students to find their true passions, enjoy the process of learning, and embrace the chance to achieve their goals.

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