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Putting exams to the test

Are exams the best way to assess pupils’ abilities? Or do they discriminate unfairly against less academic pupils?

For the first time, this year there was a fall in the number of pupils achieving top grades in GCSEs and A-levels. But, as every year, this sparked a row about standards. While some argue that improving results show pupils are getting smarter and working harder, others raise questions about the quality of examinations and school curricula. Many educationalists and commentators argue we have seen a long and steady dumbing down in educational standards, in which traditional subjects have lost rigour, to be replaced by modular courses with multiple re-sits or by vocational qualifications. And exam boards have been accused of being complicit in this process by competing to offer easier courses, leaving schools to shop around for exams that will improve their league table results.

To tackle what he sees as this ‘culture of competitive dumbing down’, education secretary Michael Gove plans to replace GCSEs in England from 2014 with a ‘tougher’ O-level-style system alongside a simpler exam for less academic teenagers, like the old CSE. This has provoked charges of ‘elitism’ that it is an attempt to create a ‘two-tier’ education system in which poorer students will be fobbed off with a second-class education. Nevertheless, others argue this shows ignorance of the current exam system within which those deemed less capable are already directed down the path of lower level GCSEs and NVQs. In addition, many private schools already opt for the International GCE (comparable to the old O-level), while increasing numbers of state schools and sixth-form colleges are turning to a baccalaureate system, also favoured by Gove, as a ‘stable’ and ‘safer alternative’ to the grade inflation of A-levels.

So, would the return to O-levels create a two-tier, elitist system in education that confines many to the scrapheap? Or is it a step in the right direction to improving academic standards for all? What purpose do exams serve anyway? Are they the best way to assess pupils’ abilities, and an important part of what education should be about? Or do they discriminate unfairly against less academic pupils?


Professor Dennis Hayes | talks | www
Paul Thomas | talks


Date and Time:

1 October 2012 at 6:30 pm


2 hours



White Cloth Gallery
24-26 Aire Street

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Organised by:

Institute of Ideas
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£4 (£3)

Available from:


Additional Information:

See www.battleofideas.org.uk for more information

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