Next to the Cock-Up Theory of History, the Fuss About Nothing is the most familiar analysis a reasonable person would make of many things. The exam kerfuffle is a Fuss About Nothing.
Scotland has cancelled exams for 15-year-olds but feels able to go ahead for 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds. Presumably, they face the same obstacles of absence for illness and their teachers must jump the same hurdles of marking. In fact, replacing exams with coursework means that more teachers will be taking their marking more seriously whether illness disrupts them or not.
England has not cancelled its exams. Following fervent debate, the exams are to be held three weeks later than usual. This means they will take place at about the same time they once used to. There had been considerable worry that marking would not be done in time for universities to have the results on time, and give out the places.
The curiosity here is that content had been reduced before it was increased again. In the old days when exams were held later in the year, there had also been more to study and prepare. In the intervening period schools became used to teaching everything in two terms. The first half of the third term went into cramming, while to fill the second half, activities were frankly invented.
This went on in addition to the two weeks that state schools stayed open when private schools had gone home, at the end of a term, when the private schools’ children had holidays and the state schools’ children played games and had ‘fun lessons’ with music blasting on almost every corridor and nearly every lesson turned into a kind of home cinema for really, really boring films. So much for making up for the net effect of the shorter state school day.
Since the other trend has been raising the school age, it is hard to know why exams before the age of 18 are being retained at all. It matters not at all if exams are replaced with coursework when no one is going to be leaving school (or leaving training) after those exams. It is very obvious that a school leaving certificate which listed all qualifications achieved and courses taken by a child, whether academic or vocational, would make vastly greater sense. Universities — many of which declare that they no longer believe in personal statements — would be able to pick out from a single document whatever personal, academic or vocational data mattered to them.
My own suspicion is that we must wait a little longer until absolutely everyone has forgotten that this, too, is what UK schools used to do. They used to award a leaving certificate at the school leaving age. England had one between 1918 and 1951 and Scotland was so Go-Ahead it had already brought one in — in 1888. Once we have forgotten this utterly, it will seem like a great new idea. We could so easily strip away the entire obsolete apparatus of former changes and restore that old status quo, if only teachers could get their head round the idea of teaching children and subjects rather than drilling them for tests. Unhappily, most teachers today, once deprived of their tests, would be like victims of culture shock, wandering the streets looking blankly at the Kazakh roadsigns, or beamed down to the wrong asteroids.
It is almost a proof of the Cock-Up Theory. It is certainly a Fuss About Nothing. Let us do as managers so often say they would like to do; let us see The Big Picture. Abolish exams. Bring back teaching.