Speech to think tank Connect
One of the symptoms of over-centralisation is the over-increasing complication and sheer number of tests that schoolchildren now go through. Let me make my attitude to this clear. Regular testing, in a simple and clear way, is essential.
Publishing the results of the main national tests is also essential, to allow parents and others to know how schools are performing.
But what is not essential, indeed what is actively harmful, is turning school years into a never-ending grind of exams. This is where we have now ended up, especially for 16-18 year-olds. The system after GCSEs has now reached saturation point.
AS levels are one of those reforms that seemed like a good idea at the time. They have proved to be a failing attempt to widen the curriculum which has done more harm than good. They were meant to widen the experience of young people, but instead they have encouraged them to give up sport, music, drama, and other useful and enjoyable activities to make sure they succeed on the exam treadmill.
Look at the figures. In 2000, 1,149 candidates complained about AS levels out of a total of 76, 427—a rate of 1.5%. In 2002 19,496 students complained out of 771, 893—a rate of 2.5%. One teacher from Suffolk who wrote to the Conservative Party Education Website summed it up perfectly: "The new AS exams are one set of exams too many."
Other correspondents to our website include two students: one, from Surrey, wrote
'I have found that AS levels promote only anxiety concerning the burden of work and the inevitable exclusion of activities such as culture and sport. The system punishes the student who engages in either.'
Another, from London, said: 'I believe that pupils do sit too many exams which us preventing schools from giving children the rounded education they deserve. Summer sports such as cricket have virtually disappeared for the 15-18 year group in both state and independent schools due to the constant demands of the modular examination system."
There have been reports of individuals buckling under the stress. One girl fled from the exam hall in tears as she sat her fifth paper of the day. She had already faced her first four papers with only a ten-minute gap in between each. Another correspondent to our website said that at her college, in the first year of the introduction of AS levels, there were more cases of stress reported than ever before.
In response to Parliamentary Questions from me Ministers have said that the number of external tests an average pupil will now take in a school career is over 45. Research by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has shown that a typical student of higher ability could face 95 exams through a school career.
On the issue of AS levels I rather agree with John Dunford of the Secondary Heads Association, who said earlier this year: "If the Government is to introduce new reforms in secondary school qualifications it must address the problem of over-assessment and reduce the number of external exams." My solution to this is to recognise that AS levels in their current form are the fifth wheel on the coach, and to get rid of them.
After last year's fiasco with exams, the Government promised a review. This year, they have promised another review. This is wholly inadequate. Our teenagers are being asked to do too many exams too often. Let's act now to relieve the burden.
There are a number of alternatives to the AS level system. We should be looking at the baccalaureate system as one option. Another is a General Studies Paper, which could encompass subjects not covered by the student's main 'A' level subjects. A third is simply to encourage schools to teach non-examined subjects—exams are a measuring rod, not the purpose of education.'