25 May 2021

The idea that exams kill creativity is fashionable nonsense

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If, like me, you’re a teacher you soon learn that everyone is an expert on education. Professional experience counts for little compared (to use a fashionable phrase) to the ‘lived experience’ of all those who have, at some point in their lives, visited a school. 

Unfortunately, those who you really need to be experts – such as the Chair of Ofqual, or the Secretary of State for Education – appear to be anything but, possessing a purblind sense of vision, labouring on, bringing darkness where there should be enlightenment and confusion instead of clarity. If you think this is an exaggeration look no further than the ongoing shambles that was brought about by the cancellation of GCSEs and A level and the forcing of schools to calculate Teacher Assessed Grades in their place. 

This never-ending queue of people who want to tell you how to your job is bad enough, but they always come armed with a list of predictable preconceptions and solutions. It doesn’t really matter if you are, say, Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s Director for Education and Skills, claiming that we need to teach 21st century skills because ‘Google knows everything’; or Simon Jenkins, trotting out his usual outdated and ill-informed verbiage on the need for a ‘schools revolution’; or Peter Hyman, former Special Advisor to Tony Blair, emoting about the ‘damaging’ effect that a knowledge-rich curriculum can have on children – the multiplicity of ideas usually come down to the same thing: namely, our schools are out-of-date exam factories that kill creativity and are not equipping our young people for the challenges of tomorrow.

The latest ‘expert’ to gift us her views is Lucy Kellaway, former journalist but now a teacher and founder of Now Teach. Kellaway recently told The Times that while teaching an economics class she had an epiphany after a student asked her an interesting question. She admits that “If I’d spent the rest of the lesson looking at that we would have learnt so much, but I couldn’t answer the question because we had to get through six more slides that would help them write perfect exam answers”. Her conclusion from this experience is, inevitably, that testing is the enemy of curiosity; for Kellaway, “the exam system is disadvantaging my students”.

Let’s leave aside for the moment that Kellaway has only been teaching for four years, and exams have been cancelled for two of them, so her experience of the evil that assessments inflict on our young is narrow, to say the least. It is not only the sentiment behind what she says that is so telling, but also the process used to arrive at such a misplaced conclusion. It barely needs saying that a good teacher can inspire curiosity irrespective of whether there is a timed paper at the end of it, and no specification is so rigid or exacting that you have to get through a set number of slides each lesson. Such limitations come from within: the fault lies with the individual, not the system. The problems arise when that individual extrapolates something meaningful from their own limited experience and believes it has universal importance, when it almost always does not. Such solipsism is endemic to education because, again, everyone thinks they are an expert.

The unfashionable truth is that examinations work. Though imperfect, they remain the fairest and most objective way of measuring knowledge and understanding, and they also help motivate students when they might not otherwise feel like working. What proof do I have to make such a claim? Teacher Assessed Grades. What is different now, and what should shape the debate in the future, is that we have a real-time comparative analysis done at huge scale: Covid-19 has allowed us to look at how schools, so used to functioning with high-stakes tests at the end of the year, have adapted to them being cancelled.

The answer is that, without public examinations, schools are struggling badly. We have, effectively, become exam boards and teachers have been turned, against their will, into examiners. That critical distance – between student and awarding body – has been broken, and with serious consequences. This year’s inevitable A level grade inflation, which threatens to overwhelm universities, is just one of the problems that has been caused by abandoning exams and making schools determine grades.

What schools need now is a reinstatement of what once was, before the pandemic wreaked havoc. We owe it to our children to not start another revolution, to resist demanding that we need to teach ‘21st century skills’ (whatever they are). There are times when the most radical action is to conserve, to reject yet more untested upheaval, and to give our students the advantages of the best possible education, which would include both curiosity and examinations. The sort of education, in fact, that many ‘experts’ themselves benefited from but now, unintentionally, but no less damagingly, seek to deny others. 

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David James is deputy head of an independent school in London.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.