Exam factories


I had a very interesting conversation with my niece yesterday. She’s in year 11 in a secondary school, which has just come out of special measures. She is a bright and articulate young lady and told me the following things that I could only sit and nod at, out of frustration & empathy rather than with agreement.

In September of year 11, her school decided that they would enter the students for iGCSE English ( I’m not sure if it was as well as normal GCSE or instead). The plan was to enter them for the November exam. For this to work they had to complete iGCSE coursework in this very short period of time. They were ‘made’ to stay behind after normal school hours to get this coursework done in time. But then of course, in October the Government decided to change the rules about early entry GCSEs and that the results from these would not count in the schools headline figures in the summer. Because of this, they dropped the iGCSE for all the students. They’d just worked incredibly hard on coursework to be told it wasn’t worth anything. As you can imagine this didn’t make the students feel valued. She even asked a member of staff about it and their reply was along the lines of ‘we have no choice’.

I think this was the beginning of her realisation that actually she wasn’t an individual for whom the school wanted to develop and nurture, but a number. A statistic. Her following anecdotes supported this hypothesis.

She told me that in the year 11 assemblies leading up to the exams, the assembly leader has made a big deal of the ‘count down’ to how much time they had left. “You’ve only got two months now” etc I think this is probably an understabable method of trying to get students focused. However she then told me that an assembly leader said something like “the school has paid a significant amount of money  for you to do these exams. If you let us down by not doing well, you’ve wasted our money”. This is horrific emotional blackmail. I was seriously unimpressed.

Also, the school has not run any trips for students since they went into SM. Her memories of her year 7-9 trips are the type of memories you recall twenty or more years later. They are, for most, some of the most memorable times ‘at school’.  Why have they stopped them? Do they feel under pressure to have children in the class room every day possible?

Finally, she explained how she felt that everything in the past year was about ‘how to do an exam’. She explained all the techniques she’s been taught. She felt that whilst she now knows how to write exams she hasn’t been prepared for life beyond secondary school. She said that she and her peers don’t know how to write a CV, apply for a bank account or to write their application for college.  Whilst discussing politics she admitted that she hadn’t been taught any of it.  It was my sister in law who has told her the basics.  This is the part that really saddened me. Schools are required to present a balanced and broad curriculum. It doesn’t sound like she’s had that in the past two years.

She was so clear about how these things made her and her peers feel. She suggested plausible alternatives on how to make the experience of year 11 balanced but effective.

So, whilst I’m sure the school is hoping for better results this summer, I really hope at some point someone in the organisation or failing that, an inspector speaks to the children about their experiences. I hope that they take on board that we have the privilege of working with these bright, articulate students who do want the best for themselves in terms of results but also in terms of being prepared for life. Otherwise we’re just running exams factories.







These are her and my opinions and interpretations.

3 thoughts on “Exam factories

  1. Emotional post. I can feel you’re angry.

    I sympathise over the iGCSE stuff, I really do. That is rubbish.

    I’m not so sure a school should be teaching kids to write CVs. I’d prefer they were building CVs than writing them. Likewise bank accounts – applying to open one is an issue of basic literacy, running one an issue of numeracy and a few other skills. I’m not sure we best prepare kids for those sorts of things by being too “real”, and more by ensuring they’re literate and numerate. If they are literate and numerate (and hence by definition ‘bright’) they are certain to be able to do all of these things.

    Having said that, the trips (and I’m an avid “what’s the opportunity cost?” with regard to all trips) stuff is terrible.

    I hope she gains qualifications and continues to gain experience.

  2. But we *are* running exam factories. I can name schools that shamelessly glory in that description. There are many in education building highly successful and remunerative careers for themselves on the back of it – so why would they stop?

    You have pinpointed precisely what is wrong with doing so – and why this phenomenon is deeply counter to the principles education supposedly espouses. Those running such schools *of course* couch what they are doing in terms of pupil-benefits- but that just goes to show how far education is now being ‘spun’.

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