Posted: 22 April, 2013

Exam factories – beyond the asterisks

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Exam season is very nearly upon us again so it’s almost time for the media to recycle those familiar images again, firstly of students sitting exams in serried ranks at functional desks, shortly followed by leaping long-haired females clutching pieces of paper. And then come the league tables, the harvest of this annual cycle. These have become such dominant images of our time that people could be forgiven for thinking that this was the sum total of our young people’s education at school. Indeed, this week a prep school headmaster has spoken out against the pervasive culture of ‘exam factories’: whilst students appear to enjoy a creative curriculum in the primary phase, this is allegedly erased by secondary schools’ desperate pursuit of letters of the alphabet, particularly those near the beginning, preferably accompanied by an asterisk.

I have no doubt that there are some schools which do pursue grades to the exclusion of everything else worth fostering, such as independence of mind. One hears tales of staff at prestigious schools pressurised to write students scripts to memorise which they then reproduce in the exam.

Of course exam results are very important and we are proud of our academic excellence: for our students about to sit their papers, they could make the difference between a course and a university they have set their heart on, and their second choice. And behind those asterisks lie hard work, the odd eureka moment, and an incipient passion for the subject.

However, at Putney we very much believe that it is as important to foster a genuine love of learning, and develop the full range of intelligences.

Eventual employers will look less at the letters of alphabet on a CV and more at the range of skills and experiences. Our Sixth Formers undertake the ‘Putney Tripos’, their A level subjects being one part of a provision for them which ensures that they develop a wider set of skills.

We are just about to pilot a Thinking Skills and co-Curricular programme for Year 7 which will eschew grades and instead validate qualities such as Leadership, Independent thinking, Sporting participation and Cultural development. These are things we have long held to be important at Putney; we are now making this overt in our practice. We also believe that it is no coincidence that those who pursue such things alongside academic excellence often succeed at the highest level at school, and beyond.

Surely the mark of a great school is that it doesn’t only generate asterisks, but that it sets up students to make the very best choices in their lives ahead.

Mrs Kirsty von Malaisé, Deputy Head, Pastoral

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