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

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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."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 591.

    I wonder if this man realises the utter contempt that he is held in within this country.

    He simply wants to impose his outdated educational experience on to the next generation. What a fool.

  • rate this

    Comment number 590.

    Mr. Gove -You are obsessed to show that you are doing your job by bring in reforms in the education system.

    Your reforms in the education system is not helping the teachers nor the students nor the parents.

  • rate this

    Comment number 589.

    When I left teaching GCSEs were rigorous and coursework was marked carefully because it was externally moderated. Many of the students who took those GCSEs, even the ones who got lower grades, got satisfying jobs and went on to do more learning. In Gove-world those who came 2-3% below the pass grade would get nothing and abandon their education, just as they did in Gove's imaginary golden age!

  • rate this

    Comment number 588.

    'Exam success makes children happy' (BBC):

    Of course it does - that's common-sense, isn't it?

    I can't see WHY this is even a discussion-point - except to have yet another 'dig' at Mr. Gove...

    To give Children more incentive to succeed in Exams, Parents should reward them too - if possible - but certainly encourage them...

  • rate this

    Comment number 587.

    74. Quiltman47
    What evidence do you have for this assertion? Its true that to pass an exam these days you have to know far more breadth about your subject than you do passing an exam that will only cover a small part. Its also true that those with photographic memories but no understanding will do very well at exams. Its not reform; he is destroying education by reverting to an outmoded system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 586.

    584. feciko
    Grow up!

  • rate this

    Comment number 585.

    Today Education news "GCSE"control assesment will be scrapped.Secondly A-level exams will be held only once in Summer.
    The students are the guinea pigs of the trial and error method.Most of the tutors in the Top university openday tell student ,you must get an A or A* to get a place The students are loosing interest in learning. Eaton college ex-students stop messing up with future generation

  • rate this

    Comment number 584.

    So Mr Gove , everyone who passes an exam is a winner and everyone who doesn't is a loser ....its still better than being a Tory !!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 583.

    Whether you like it or not, the plain fact is that Life rotates around two concepts: success and failure. Many pink-glassed spectacle-wearers here refuse to accept that. Children need to learn lots of things and if exams teach them that failure has no rewards, that will do them good, whatever their exam result. Gove realises this; many choose not to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 582.

    Not all kids are academic, not all kids are NOT academic, they are all different"

    Quite true and we certainly need more plumbers, electricians and mechanics. It's just rather odd that the middle classes and the rich seem to think these trades are not for their children as they're always "academic" but they are suitable for the children of other families, right?

  • rate this

    Comment number 581.

    575. Bradford
    Whether a school does well & pupils do well really depends on the quality of the children and their social backgrounds. Heresy but true
    Indeed we all know it, but Gove doesnt.

    Inner cities are awash with poverty, drug and alcohol problems, with multiple languages and cultures thrown in for good measure

    Teaching today isn't quite like Mr Gove's independent school and Oxford days

  • rate this

    Comment number 580.

    Gove is arguing then that exam failure makes children unhappy. Paradoxically he is wedded to the view that 'good exams are hard ones as demonstrated by the number of children that fail them'. That's the 'policy' he has pursued.

    So now we see it wasn't a really a policy at all, just a series of random decisions based on his ill considered prejudices.

    He's an unprincipled careerist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 579.

    Anybody know what qualifications Mr Gove has ( if any ?)

  • rate this

    Comment number 578.

    I find it astonishing that our democracy had degenerated to the point where the ramblings of an individual unskilled, unqualified, politician are enacted on the British education system.

    We must be stark raving mad to put up with it.

    Why do we place so little value on training, expertise and experience?

    This appears to be a very British disease.

  • rate this

    Comment number 577.

    Perhaps they should make Thomas Gradgrind the Minister for Education. At precisely the time when it's becoming less and less necessary to stuff one's head with facts, which are instantly available over the internet almost everywhere, Gove is intent on putting students back into a pre-electronic age, to the inevitable neglect of the teaching of skills - which are what people really need.

  • rate this

    Comment number 576.

    One has to be particularly brave to leave the comfort zone of the often poorly rewarding career to try something completely new. In that respect, an academic qualification can be a burden.
    It is no accident that the illiterate often become multi-millionaires while their schoolday "superiors" have to be satisfied with a comfortable but pretty boring life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 575.

    Whether a school does well & pupils do well really depends on the quality of the children and their social backgrounds. Heresy but true & everyone knows it

    Many schools turn out poor students because their pupils come from low aspirational or benefit dependent families

    Labour hid this decline by lowering the pass rates for exams but their is no doubt the standard of many school leavers is low

  • rate this

    Comment number 574.

    Mr Gove is wrong to assume that, “humans are hard wired to seek out challenges”. This only happens if they have a successful, well-adjusted childhood; have no attachment problems and have managed to acquire a satisfactory internal working model. Perhaps he has acquired this view by being amongst people who have had a good childhood and thinks that everyone will be like the people he knows.

  • rate this

    Comment number 573.

    Examinations are important for a minority. For the majority, if the examinations are made more difficult, more and more will find the demands impossible to achieve and will turn away from education.
    What most children want is a curriculum that is modern, relevant and (yes) rigorous. In many subjects that is not the case so many children do not enjoy school or find it worthwhile.

  • rate this

    Comment number 572.

    Whilst this will work for many children, others who are not inclined to academia will find this a real turn off so we need to find a way to engage those children and get them fired up for their life with opportunities in industry - let's get back to kids having Saturday jobs from 14 - it does them, and us, a world of good to have that experience... learning about customer service works!


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