At last we’re trying to make school examinations more rigorous — one of the rather few areas where we can commend Coalition policy. But I’m especially interested in Nick Clegg’s reported attitude, which beautifully illustrates how ideological preconceptions trump common sense.
Clegg apparently insisted that there should be only one exam. We should not go back to the old two-tier system of “O” Levels and CSEs, because that would be “discriminatory”. But Nick, the whole point of exams is to discriminate — yes, discriminate, let’s say it out loud — between good and less-good pupils. That’s what exams are for. If you insist that exams should not discriminate, then you might just as well give everyone 80% and save all that trouble of setting and marking papers. You’d save the pupils a great deal of stress too. To quote the immortal title of Melanie Phillips’ excellent book, “All must have prizes”.
It may be anathema to liberals, and socialists, and the bien pensant educational establishment, and the teachers’ unions, but the fact is that in any age cohort of children there is in fact a wide range of ability.
The primary purpose of school exams is to enable employers and/or universities to select appropriate candidates for jobs or for further education. And this is good — essential, even — for the universities and employers. But it is also beneficial for the pupils. Places in university are not like lottery prizes — valuable and relevant, no matter who receives them. A university course studying (say) particle physics at Cambridge is no use at all to a school-leaver who is marginally literate and has no qualifications. If we send such a student to university, we are wasting educational resources and damaging the reputation of a great university — but also damaging the student, who will be embarrassed and frustrated, and will very likely drop out, and return home laden with debt and with his tail between his legs. Clegg’s idea of “non-discrimination” damages everyone involved.
If early reports are correct, there’s been a coalition tussle between Gove, who wanted a two-tier exam system, and Clegg, who insisted on a unitary system.
The result looks likely to be an exam paper of two halves. The first half will consist of simple questions which more able students will zip through in ten minutes before getting on with the serious questions later on. Less able children, on the other hand, will spend their hour-and-a-half struggling through the early questions, knowing that they have no chance at all with the difficult bit at the end. So to maintain Clegg’s daft idea of “non-discrimination”, we’ll effectively have put a two-tier system together into a single exam.
These are the absurd subterfuges forced on us by the Lib-Dems’ refusal to engage with reality.