Exam success makes children happy, argues Michael Gove

Michael Gove Michael Gove will back rigorous testing in schools as humans are hard wired to seek out challenges

Related Stories

Exam success boosts children's happiness and encourages them to learn, according to the education secretary Michael Gove.

In a speech to the Independent Academies Association conference on Wednesday Mr Gove is expected to back rigorous testing in England's schools.

He will say that easy exams are worse than no exams at all.

"Exams matter because motivation matters. Humans are hard-wired to seek out challenges," he will argue.

"Our self-belief grows as we clear challenges we once thought beyond us. If we know tests are rigorous and they require application to pass, then the experience of clearing a hurdle we once considered too high spurs us on to further endeavours and deeper learning."

'Pleasurable rush'

In the speech, the minister is expected to refer to the work of the American cognitive scientist Daniel T Willingham whom he cites as one of his biggest influences.

Quoting from Mr Willingham's book Why Students Don't Like School Mr Gove says he agrees that students are motivated to learn if they enjoy "the pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought".

Mr Gove is set to say this is what exam success provides: "There is no feeling of satisfaction as deep or sustained as knowing we have succeeded through hard work at a task which is the upper end, or just beyond, our normal or expected level of competence.

"Exams show those who have not mastered certain skills or absorbed specific knowledge what more they need to practise and which areas they need to work on," Mr Gove will say.

Start Quote

The education secretary needs to stop his obsession with engineering an education system which only the few will navigate”

End Quote Christine Blowe NUT

"For all these reasons, exams pitched at a level which all can easily pass are worse than no exams at all. Unless there is stretch in the specification, and application is required to succeed, there will be no motivation, no satisfaction and no support for those who need it."

He is due to argue that it is vital for children to learn facts and commit them to memory: "Memorising scales or times tables or verse, so that we can play, recall or recite automatically gives us this mental equipment to perform more advanced functions and display greater creativity."

Mr Gove is also set to tell the London conference that "examinations are a key weapon of progressives everywhere", claiming that external tests are fairer than teacher assessment: "I am, as it happens, a huge fan of teacher assessment, properly designed and administered but teacher assessment alone cannot bring the benefits proper external testing can secure."

Mr Gove is also expected to argue that school league tables have helped to overcome prejudice against schools in disadvantaged areas.

"In the past, before the clarifying honesty of league tables, schools were judged on hearsay and prejudice. Schools with challenging intakes in disadvantaged communities were written off as sink schools - but many of them were performing well, better than other schools with more privileged intakes which were coasting."

Commenting on the speech the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers Christine Blower said: "Michael Gove appears to have little grasp of what is already in the curriculum.

"Learning times tables and facts is obviously a part of the school day. The assertion that GCSEs are far too easy will certainly not be recognised by either parents or pupils.

"The education secretary needs to stop his obsession with engineering an education system which only the few will navigate and look at recognising all achievement not just that of his schooldays."

Labour's Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary, said: "Michael Gove's exams fiasco mean GCSE students are angry, not happy, because their ambitions have been held back. His old fashioned approach to exams means that students will be unprepared for the rigours of the modern economy."


More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    When will this incompetent man stop penalising real, in-depth, applied learning in favour of box-ticking? Last-minute cramming for exams is not learning, it's a game that children are forced (or coached by parents who can afford it) to play. They forget it all the moment the exams are over, can't apply it in real life, it's meaningless. This is not about happiness, this is all about league tables.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    Children deserve a phenomenal education, full of great challenges.

    BUT ... it must be education that they want, and not stuff slammed into their brains.

    Give them what they want, and lots of it.

    Children look so bored - because the adults have stopped listening.

    They want to climb mountains. They want to be great scientists.

    But they want to decide.

    They don't want to pay for our debt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.


    Not everyone gets a "prize" they get a piece of paper that says how much of the sylabus they were able to learn. Now if people want to pretend a D is a pass that's their own fault. It's not. It's a reflection that they learnt some stuff, but not enough. If employers and Uni's stopped accepting grades less than C it would be a good start!

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    94. John Charlton
    ... Whatever the 'all must win prizes' brigade pretend, children are naturally competitive and want to achieve their best.
    Strangely enough, not all children are naturally competitive, and this is no pretence on my part. I agree, however, that children usually want to achieve their best. I just don't think an exam system which has failure built into it is the right way

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    100.The Bloke

    And I take it that those skills you used in those exams have been used by you everyday since? That you have never learned anything that you did not have to do an exam? That those skills that you used to pass the exam are all that you have ever needed to lead a productive life?

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    To everyone that says exams are just proof you can regurgitate facts -

    If that's all you were doing then it's no wonder you didn't do very well.

  • Comment number 105.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    At least Mr Twigg has experience of attending a state School which of course is an improvement on Gove"

    So Mr Twigg has no experience of private schooling? Yet I bet he won't feel that stops him opining on the subject.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    "At my private senior school, it was the daily influence of well-to-do peers who simply expected to succeed that made me want to work and succeed.
    My conclusion is that you can't teach aspiration."

    But surely this uplifting tale seems to show that it can be taught?

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    My understanding is that Gove’s argument runs along the lines that, if exams are made harder, children will be happier because of the greater challenge that these more rigorous tests present them with. Presumably then, if exams are made so fiendishly difficult that nobody passes them, children will be absolutely ecstatic as a result. Or might there be a flaw in the argument somewhere?

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    Any celebrated achievement makes a person happy.

    However, if we celebrate exam success rather than learning itself, then there's a danger people will believe that it's something that only happens in a formal setting such as school or college, and not throughout life.

    I see this already. Fluent, self-taught speakers of foreign languages may not be taken seriously without a paper ticket too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    Tosh, the only thing exams prove is that you can memorise facts and write them down.//

    Wrong. Utter rubbish. I remember taking exams which required knowledge, but also the ability to reason and argue based on that knowledge. I also remember language courses in which dictation and translation were important. Not nowadays, apparently.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    At present the "everyone gets a prize" education system is failing them - once they get out into the real world they will find there are no prizes without perseverance, sacrifice and hard work. The world will only get more and more competitive and our eduction system is getting weaker and weaker. Time for change and time for the teaching unions and vested interests to drop the dogma.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    Again ideology triumphs over a thoughtful development of a quality education system. Michael, your amibitions are sticking out again - put them back in your trousers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    Sadly the minister is very wrong on the human capacity for challenge. As a perfectly average state junior school pupil I had no appetitie for challenge.

    At my private senior school, it was the daily influence of well-to-do peers who simply expected to succeed that made me want to work and succeed.

    My conclusion is that you can't teach aspiration.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Some strong motivational words used here like “Hard wired to seek out challenges” “Pleasurable rush”“Further endeavors” “Deeper learning”. However what happens to all of this when after the exams there are no Jobs for these youngsters? Then words like despair, desperation. Low self esteem apply.
    Get a grip on reality after school youngsters are thrown on the scrap heap.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    Good Teachers are key to a child's happiness and learning at school, not exam results.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    Gove is entirely right. Whatever the 'all must win prizes' brigade pretend, children are naturally competitive and want to achieve their best.
    However, not all children are academic and it is cruel to force them to continue in such subjects. I would favour reducing the school leaving age to 14 on condition such children had apprenticeships.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Dear Mr Gove,
    The British education system has been using examinations for centuries, they are not your personal invention, there are individuals known as teachers in places called schools that firmly believe in them,

    I suggest you either quit your job or spend three months working in a school before you say another word on the matter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    Wasn't this guy saying that the GCSE courses focus too much on the exam part, and not enough on the education part, as one of the things he used as an argument to get rid of them?

    I'm not sure what's worse. That we have an idiot calling the shots over education, or that he thinks everyone else are idiots enough not to notice the brown matter that makes up the majority of his words.


Page 25 of 30


More Education & Family stories



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.