“The unexamined life IS worth living”

I hope the Classicists amongst you will forgive this corruption of the famous quote from Socrates, via Plato. I hasten to add that, philosophically, I couldn’t be more with Socrates’ original. Of course we must all ask ourselves ‘the big questions’ – it’s such a fundamental part of being an educated person in the Western civilisation that traces its roots back to Ancient Greece.

Famously, when Socrates examined a perceived truth, he did by means of dialogue. And yet all these years later we have an education system that reserves this technique for the viva, the oral grilling that only the very top few in the education system experience, usually at Masters or Doctorate level. When it comes to checking on achievement, we put our faith almost entirely in a seemingly never-ending series of written tests, which are heavily influenced by the ideals of the industrial revolution and the efficiencies of the production line. And at this time of the year, as the tension builds towards those days in May and June at the peak of the hay-fever season when thousands of students will shuffle unwillingly into stuffy exam halls, more and more of us are questioning whether this really is still the right model for today – or a model that will best equip our children for the challenges they will face in the future. If there ever was a way of putting people off education…

Now of course there is, no doubt, a place for written exams, just as for orals and other forms of assessment. To go back to Ancient Greece again, “nothing in excess” is usually a pretty good principle to work to. And we might even think that we in the UK are in a fairly middle-of-the-road place when we see the exam crammers that exist in Japan and other Asian countries.

And yet, the reforms that we’ve seen in the last couple of years have pushed us back at, for instance, A Level to a linear course leading to a set of terminal exams in the most traditional way. And similar steps have been taken to ‘stiffen up’ GCSEs. So what’s going on? Do we have to fall back on what is maybe the ‘least-worst’ option?

I’m not going to debate here the virtues of terminal exams versus continuous assessment. They both have factors in their favour and there are forests of academic treatises on their relative effectiveness.

What I do want to focus on is the psychology that – I fear – underlies the choices our political leaders have made. I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect I’m not far off the mark. What I fear is that our current system of exams is driven by:

•  A fundamental mistrust of others – a mind-set that says that students will not focus, work hard or achieve unless they’re forced to. At its root, this is also a mistrust of ourselves, in fact;

•  ‘It was good enough for me’ syndrome – or, put differently, ‘it never did me any harm‘. This is the goal of an education system that turns out a product that closely resembles ourselves; and

•  The promise of ‘jam tomorrow’ – rooted in an Anglo-Saxon belief in hard work, this is based on the concept that there should be pain before gain. Prove yourself in a test of mettle and you will be accepted into society.

Are these really the drivers that we want at the heart of our system? Do we want these psychological traits to lead our children to dread whole swathes of their young lives?

In particular, I’m concerned that – if they work at all – these criteria are only really effective in producing candidates for skills-based, linear careers in the traditional professions such as medicine, law and accounting. I think it’s far less likely that they will work for people whose talents lie in the creative industries, including IT. And these are of course the areas where the UK is in the forefront – in spite of, rather than because of, our system of exams.

In the business world, it is recognised that regulation is not a panacea. In fact regulation in itself will almost always be open to ‘gaming’ and unintended consequences. It’s now recognised that it’s far more effective to embed the right principles at the heart of the framework and to reward those who stick to them.

The education system can learn from this. What schools and society as a whole need to do is focus on creating a culture that builds character in our children so that they know what’s right and wrong and are recognised consistently for doing the right thing. This will remove the deep mistrust that lies at the heart of the current system. And we’ll all be so much more able to foster the whole range of talents, abilities and interests that our children naturally have.