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Public Exams in Great Britain

The organization of the exams which schoolchildren take from the age of about fifteen onwards exemplifies both the lack of uniformity in British education and also the traditional “hands-off” approach of British governments. First, these exams are not set by the government, but rather by independent examining boards. There are several of these. Everywhere except Scotland (which has its own single board), each school or LEA decides which board’s exams its pupils take. Some schools even enter their pupils for the exams of more than one board.

Second, the boards publish a separate syllabus for each subject. There is no unified school-leaving exam or school-leaving certificate. Some boards offer a vast range of subjects. In practice, nearly all pupils do exams in the English language, maths and a science subject, and most also do an exam in technology and one in a foreign language, usually French. Many students take exams in three or more additional subjects.

Third, the exams have nothing to do with school years as such. They are divorced from the school system. There is nothing to stop a sixty-five-year-old doing a few of them for fun. In practice, of course, the vast majority of people who do these exams are school pupils, but formally it is individual people who enter for these exams, not pupils in a particular year of school.

An example of the independence of the examining boards is the decision of one of them (the Northern Examinations Board) in 1992 to include certain popular television programmes on their English literature syllabus. This was against the spirit of the government's education policy at that time. The idea of 100,000 schoolchildren settling down to watch the Australian soap opera Neighbours as part of their homework made government ministers very angry, but there was nothing they could do to stop it.

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Should Examinations Be Replaced with Other Forms of Assessment?


At present many schools, colleges, and universities assess their students by means of end-of-year written examinations. These can be very stressful and many students fare worse in exams than in other forms of assessment. On the other hand, perhaps it is good training for later life when success depends on being able to deal with stress and perform well on big occasions.



Exams test memory more than analysis, creativity, or real understanding. If you have a good memory you can get away with doing very little work throughout the course and still get very good grades.


Things such as open book exams, viva voces, and questions which ask you to evaluate information are not testing merely memory, but your ability to apply your knowledge.


Coursework is a much more genuine assessment of a candidate because it takes into account research, understanding of the issues and ability to express oneself, not just ability to answer a question in a very limited period of time.


The pressure attached to A’levels and GCSEs is huge and causes many problems. Some students have breakdowns and, in extreme cases, attempt suicide because they cannot handle the pressure, especially with university places relying on grades.


As well as causing personal problems, pressure can lead many bright students to under-perform. Exams test your ability to keep your cool more than they test your intelligence.


Examination results depend on the opinion of the individual examiner. The same paper marked by two different examiners could get completely different results. This is exacerbated by the short time that examiners spend marking a



Coursework is valuable but should be used in conjunction with exams. A student might answer a question very well given time and help from teachers, family and textbooks, but then be unable to apply what they have learnt to another question coming from a different angle.Con:

Coursework can involve a lot of pressure as well, especially with the meeting of deadlines. Schools should, and do, teach pupils about relaxation and stress-management for both exams and coursework.


Pressure is a fact of life and children must be prepared for it. Pressure only increases at university and in the workplace and we must teach children how to perform well in these conditions rather than protect them from them.Con:

Coursework must also be marked by individuals, so the same criticism applies. It is not significant however, as moderation and examiners meetings ensure that papers are marked to the same standards.

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Pre-reading questions:

1. How often do you have to take exams?

2. How do you feel about the exams? Do you enjoy them/ hate them/ get nervous about them?

3. What is the most difficult thing about exams?

Date: 2016-04-22; view: 2761

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