Victorian exam system fails pupils, says Eton headmaster

Tony Little, headmaster of Eton Too much focus on tests and exams is damaging education in England argues Eton headmaster Tony Little

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Exams in England are "unimaginative, little changed from Victorian times" and fail to ready pupils for the modern workplace, warns Eton's headmaster.

Too much focus on grades means exams can eclipse an all-round education, argues Tony Little, in the Radio Times.

Mr Little says the pressure is on for England to emulate highly academic school systems in east Asia.

But he warns against copying "the same straitjacket the Chinese are trying to wriggle out of".

Mr Little describes the current exam system as obliging students "to sit alone at their desks in preparation for a world in which, for most of the time, they will need to work collaboratively".

'A different tune'

He also highlights a recent poll which suggests that nearly three-quarters of parents are worried that Britain is on the slide compared with east Asian countries that perform better in international comparison tests.

"The pressure is on, we must all do better - whether we are public schools, state schools, free schools or academies - and especially in league tables."

But, he suggests, the current drive to bring England's education system more into line with those in countries like Singapore and China, may be misguided.

He says that just occasionally "a voice can be heard singing a different tune".

He welcomes a controversial letter sent last month by two teachers at a Lancashire primary school to their 11-year-old pupils after their test results.

The letter, from Rachel Tomlinson head of Barrowford Primary School in Nelson, Lancashire and teacher Amy Birkett, told the children to enjoy their results but said they should be aware that there are many ways of being smart besides performing well in exams.

Mr Little says he was interested in the public response to the letter - either as an overdue and necessary support for the children, or as a betrayal of their futures.

He concludes that while a sharp focus on performance is a good thing there is more to education than "jostling for position in a league table".

He repeats a recent conversation with the head of a leading school in Shanghai who felt his pupils' education "was stifled" by the highly demanding Chinese equivalent of A-levels.

Exam 'treadmill'

The head was concerned that his students lacked "the ability to develop, amend and present an idea, the capacity to think laterally. And where did he look for inspiration? To Britain".

The Department for Education responded: "We make no apology for holding schools to account for the results their pupils achieve in national tests and public examinations.

"Parents deserve to know that their children are receiving the very best possible teaching. But all good schools know that there is no tension between academic success and an excellent all-round education.

"We know constant testing is unpopular and we are ending the exam treadmill by returning A-levels to linear exams at the end of two years.

"This will ensure students gain a deep understanding of their subjects and end the culture of constant assessment and resits.

"Our reforms will ensure we have an exam system which prepares young people to succeed in modern Britain."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    Another educator bemoaning the shortcomings of our 1 size fits all approach to education. In reality; central planners' 1 size fits all approaches end up fitting very few.

    Teachers should be to choose how they come together to deliver education. Experimenting, discarding poor methods and embracing successful ones. Parents too should be free to choose their child's teacher/school too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    Having taught in industry for two decades, I am of the opinion that most people who have never stood in front of a class, or lectured students, are absolutely clueless on how you actually teach people.

    Anybody who has taught, or has been taught, methods of learning knows that one size does not fit all!

    There's no substitute for quality teachers, however most now can't get out quick enough!

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    Parents will never agree on education but in my opinion I can ask for no more than for my children to have a happy educational experience where they thrive, are encouraged and praised for whatever they achieve when they give their all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    I was put through the sausage machine of education in the 50's through to the early 70's. All the way through the emphasis was always on passing the exams rather than trying to grasp an understanding of what was being taught. It ended up with me coming out the other end knowing lots of stuff but understanding little. This was passed off by teachers/lecturers saying understanding will come later.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    I often heard students opine that real learning begins at A level. It doesn't surprise me. The student has the freedom to select a more narrow range of subjects that interest them and that have some relation to what they want to do.

    Our enemy is the curriculum. Teachers are turned into prison guards rather than facilitators. Imagine how we could compete if we were allowed that level of focus.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    The retiring generation ensured the ladder was pulled up behind them.

    Those that follow (30 and under) have a bleak future, ever decreasing salaries that buy less with devalued pounds in a country where living costs are exploding due to artificial scarcity. These generations will not own a nice home, will not have a long and comfortable retirement. Their kids WILL be 'obedient workers'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Exams should be used to test knowledge and ability, if set correctly. Many teachers and exam setters fail to teach knowledge and to test it properly. Teaching to a formula to 'pass' for the sake of school statistics is wrong. Teaching should be expanding knowledge, reason and mental ability to apply in a range of circumstances - as is required in life. Too many schools fail to educate properly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Having being involved with education all my life I find myself agreeing with a headmaster from Eton !
    I,ve sat and set various exams including taking a 6 hour "Professional " exam which included supervised food an comfort breaks . I have never yet, in real life ,had to regurgitate all my knowledge under close supervision over a set time . No wonder as a nation we are such poor communicators .

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Perhaps the government should, wait for it, *invest* in the education system rather than constantly just altering examination goal posts to meet their statistics.

    The UK is a world leader in finance and science, amongst other things, but this will not last long if we don't inspire our young people to succeed, and that needs resources, not the selling off of playing fields and fiddling with exams.


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