So here we are in the Summer Term again, the evenings are getting lighter and exams are getting nearer. It’s not a perfect system by any means, but seems to be the only option for the time being. It’s difficult to get away from the sense that many of us have that “the exam experience” reflects something that prepares one for the realities of life – rightly or wrongly.
The people at Cambridge University who invented the mass sitting of written exams back in the 18th century have a lot to answer for – it was the academic answer to the nascent mass production that was coming into the industrial world at the time. Industrialisation is a great thing, of course, but it needs a lot of quality control to make it work when the product gets complex. All of which has generated quite a few PR challenges for the examination boards in recent years. The rise of the re-mark has been such a noticeable trend. It’s very often justified, and grades do change, but I also wonder whether sometimes the decision to challenge reflects a lack of honest feedback, or just a lack of realism. We have worked to build a good relationship with our main examining boards and I’m confident that they will do the best they can for our girls.
Thinking back to my own studies, one of the key elements in the world of Higher Education is the oral exam – or the “viva”. It’s amazing how quickly an expert can tell whether a candidate has in-depth knowledge, and something meaningful to contribute to the field, as opposed to a superficial grasp. It’s also pretty much impossible to “cram” for this kind of assessment – learning has to be accompanied by understanding of a sort that means that the content will not be forgotten on the way out of the exam hall, let alone by the start of next term!
I’m pleased to say that one of the characteristics of St Mary’s is that, although our results are of course top class, we don’t achieve this by focusing all our efforts on “the test”. We want our girls to be educated for life, with a set of skills that equips them for the future. We spend a lot of time making sure that this is what we deliver – it really is at the heart of my headship.
However, I’m afraid there’s no getting away from the challenges of the next few weeks. We wish all our girls who are facing public exams all the very best. And for anyone who’s behind where they would have liked to be, don’t worry – it really isn’t too late!