Dr Richard House, senior lecturer in education, University of Winchester; editor, Too Much, Too Soon? Early learning and the erosion of childhood; author, In, Against and Beyond Therapy
Tina Isaacs, senior lecturer, Institute of Education; formerly head, 14-19 Regulation, Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual)
Dr James Panton, teacher, politics and history, Stowe School, Buckingham; associate lecturer in social science, the Open University; co-founder, Manifesto Club
Philip Walters, chair, Rising Stars (educational publisher), the GL Education Group, and Book Aid International
Chair: Dr Mark Taylor, assistant head of school, Addey and Stanhope comprehensive school; London convenor, IoI Education Forum
Education secretary Michael Gove caused a storm in the summer by proposing to replace GCSEs with tougher exams more akin to the old O-levels. But exams had already been making headlines since Professor Les Ebdon was made access tsar for universities and put at the helm of the beefed-up Office for Fair Access. Ebdon's support for the use of 'contextual data in admissions' means the type of school a university applicant attended, the funding and resources it received, and the range of courses offered all become important factors in assessing 'academic potential'. Never mind what you have achieved in that grueling, three-hour exam; what could you achieve if given a fair chance? In that case, what's the point of exams at all?
In fact, the whole system of examinations, once viewed as meritocratic and campaigned for by nineteenth-century workers' organisations as a bulwark against privilege, has become tarnished. There is constant chatter of grade inflation, of dumbing down, excessive credentialism, and most recently, unfairness. Exam boards have been exposed as 'corrupt' by newspaper investigations into how they reveal their questions in advance to pressurised teachers and compete to offer the easiest papers. Critics point out that the boards are all private companies that benefit financially from setting the bar low to show how 'successful' their own exam is. Some state schools advised their pupils to take 'easier' GCSE-equivalent subjects to enhance their position in league tables. Meanwhile, private schools have turned to the IGCSE (comparable to the O-level) to give pupils 'meatier fare to chew on'. As A-star grades proliferate, some suggest abolishing GCSEs, even A levels, altogether. Would Michael Gove's recent proposals mean higher standards for all, or as some fear, simply a return to a two-tier system?
Do we really know what and why we examine today? One common complaint is that teaching for testing has replaced education. Pupils may be desperate to acquire ever more qualifications, but often as a means of gaining advantage in the employment market rather than as evidence of knowledge acquired. Critics of modern examinations and assessment argue continual testing misses the point about education as a holistic, humanist enterprise. Some even insist exams only test the useless bits of knowledge you never need again after you leave the exam hall anyway. And in an era that shies away from judgement and espouses self-esteem, exams that dare to fail or differentially grade people can seem anachronistic, elitist. With all this uncertainty, are exams still worth the paper they are written on, and if so, what point do they serve?