From Eton or Eaton Manor, why our exam system rates a C minus

Wed 06 Aug 2014

(with apologies to Lawrence Durrell)

As seats of learning go, one might think the similarities between Milton Keynes College and Eton College would pretty much begin and end with the second half of their names but there is one area in particular where the two institutions speak with a single voice.  Eton’s headmaster, Tony Little, gave an interview this week where he said exams in England are "unimaginative,” and “little changed from Victorian times."  He bemoaned the fact that the focus on grades does little to ready learners for the world of work, making them as it does, “sit alone at their desks in preparation for a world in which, for most of the time, they will need to work collaboratively".

The fact is that the way we funnel young people through the sausage machine of exams is about as relevant to the modern economy as Stephenson’s Rocket or Hargreaves’ Spinning Jenny.  What the system fails to address is that there is a huge difference between educating someone and pummelling sufficient information into their reeling brains to convince an examiner of their fitness for a C grade or above.  When new, school-leaver students arrive at the College we test them using highly-respected techniques and frequently find that from June to September their knowledge in particular subjects has already fallen from C to D or even E.  Quite simply the process of forgetting what they’ve been taught began the moment they left the exam room.  This should really surprise no one.  If you ask people what they remember from school days it is often not stuff learnt for exams but incidental things which caught their imagination. 

Young people need to acquire “the habit of learning” which is about working collectively, working consistently over time and not about cramming to pass an exam.  That is generally a dreadful method for teaching anyone anything unless they belong to that lucky few whose flypaper minds happen to work that way.  Then there’s the often ignored question of the different rates at which people mature.  Who on earth decided that everyone should do particular exams at particular ages? 

It’s not even as if the system gears people up satisfactorily for higher education.  Every year students arrive at university where all of a sudden it’s not about rote learning anymore.  Individual thought and research are required and, surprise, surprise, many accustomed only to exam success start to struggle.  This may be one of the reasons why the evidence shows that in terms of achievement at university FE College students are more likely to stay the course than students from schools.

There are alternatives.  Many other countries use a credit-based system where pupils are monitored over time.  A higher regard is given for the ability to work together and to learn from experience, to be adaptable.  The modern world will see few people staying in one job, one career or even one industrial sector for life.  The sweep and speed of technological change on so many fronts is already too great for any of us to keep up with and the pace is so quick that no education is going to be sufficient on its own.  Current and future generations will have to go on learning throughout their lives.  That ability to learn and retain is not something the present system teaches. 

Here at the College (Milton Keynes not Eton) we are fortunate in that vocational education is already much more credit and project-based and involves significant continuous assessment.  By working very hard to ensure that students are on a course which fires their enthusiasm and leads to their chosen career we hope to instil that love of learning which will be an essential attribute in years to come.

Anyone who has studied English Literature for examination will be able to name one book, one author, perhaps even a whole genre which they loath and detest because of the way they were taught about it at school (for me, anything by Lawrence Durrell as you ask).  Don’t blame the teacher; they were only trying to get their poor students through an exam.

As I reflect on the commonality between our college here in Milton Keynes and the approach of Eton College in developing the whole person not just delivering a qualification I of course cannot fail to reflect wistfully on the “slight” difference in funding per student of around £35k per year at Eton College and £4k per year at an FE college – now what could we do with that extra £31k?
For Britain to thrive in the future a highly-skilled, highly-motivated and adaptable workforce will be essential, and the fact is our exam system is in many ways working directly against this ideal.  The FE sector is striving to find alternatives which will better serve our young people and our economy.  So pay attention at the back there, Department for Education; there’s going to be a test and it starts right now. 

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