Summer Exam Madness

21 Aug 2007 The Guardian

We have made it through A-Level results day; now stand by for some GCSE nonsense.


As parents, students or teachers how many times have these curious summer rituals interrupted your holidays?


And why do we do it this way? It defies logic. Just consider, for a moment, the disadvantages of publishing results in mid-August.


It means teachers interrupting their precious summer break to open up the school and distribute exam slips, congratulations, commiserations and options advice on two successive Thursdays in August?


For parents, it means summers marred by anxious offspring who are moody (or just moodier than usual?) until their results are out.


 And why should students have to wait until the middle of the holidays before getting the essential data for making decisions about their university offers and options for further study?  


There is another consideration: the media. No, I don’t expect sympathy for education reporters toiling to hew a story from the mass of (largely predictable) examination statistics.


However, it does matter when we get media coverage that gives an unrealistic view of what is happening to educational standards.


Yet, this is almost inevitable with the current situation. Because it is mid-August, and because exams touch so many people’s lives, editors are usually desperate for ‘stories’.


The trouble is we do not have the full picture. In August, all we get is pass-rates expressed as a proportion of the candidates entered for examinations. This is of limited value in judging how well the education system is performing.


For the significant data we have to wait a few more months for the more meaningful figures: those who have passed exams expressed as a percentage of the entire age cohort. 


 It is the failure to understand this crucial difference which leads otherwise sensible media commentators to say, as they do most years, that A Levels must be too easy since 96% of young people pass them.


What they are actually referring to is the pass-rate amongst those who survive to the end of A-Level courses.


In fact, with only around half of all young people even starting A levels, the true picture is that only 28% of 17 year-olds achieve 3 A-Level passes (and under 4% achieve three grade As).


So, what is to stop us abandoning this August ritual? In the past, the obstacle was the time needed to collect the exam papers, distribute them to markers, gather them all in again, and then set grade boundaries.


However, the time needed for all this is shrinking rapidly. Exam boards can now scan papers with amazing speed and marking completed on-line.


The exam board, Edexcel, has piloted delivering results on-line too.


So, with a concerted push, it should very soon be possible to produce exam results before the end of term in late July.


To assist with this, there is a strong case for bringing forward the time when pupils take their exams.


At present, most A Levels begin in mid-May and are then put on hold during the half-term holiday in late May. 


This week break in exams is unnecessary. With most invigilation now carried out by support staff, there is no reason why the exams could not continue through half term.


This way the bulk of exams could be over by the end of the first week in June, leaving time for results to be processed by late July.  


This brings another advantage: all schools could do what some have trialled, namely beginning the next year’s academic courses after half-term, saving what is otherwise a limbo period for many students.


Think of the advantages. AS and A2 options could be settled before the end of term. Students would know which subjects to focus on with their summer reading.


And we could finally move away from the current nonsense of university results based on predicted grades and proceed to a full Post Qualifications Admissions (PQA) system.


The government, faced with determined opposition from some universities, has been creeping slowly towards PQA, which is still not due until 2012.


However, ministers have already recommended that A Level results be published one week earlier than now (after all, the universities already get them a week before students).

With some joined-up thinking, better use of technology, and a bit of imagination, we could finally bury this silly August ritual.,,2152652,00.html

User Comments

6th Form teacher, Surrey - 21 Aug 2007

I read your article in today's Guardian with interest

I read your article in today's Guardian with interest and agree with much of what you said - there is also the additional point that would serve to stregthen your argument. The current AS exams largely take place before half term, with the A2 exams following half term. As far as I can see there is no reason why these should not have been switched. The pressure to complete specifications and cover the content of the AS courses has always been greater than with the A2 (coursework helps here). If the A2 exams were before half term the students could 'disappear' earlier -off to work or Thailand, the exam boards would have an extra week for marking and the Universities would get the results earlier -and there would be more time to complete the AS course and for revision for the first years.

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