Bored with Exam Boards?

Art History, Archaeology, we’ll miss out the ones beginning with B (OK, it’s because I cannot think of any right now!) and onto Classical Civilisation next.

How much further through the alphabet will we go, losing subjects that examination boards offer A Level examinations in? How long have Design and Drama left? In case you missed it examination boards seem to now be in the business of ditching courses that they perceive to be uneconomic to run, due to small numbers of pupils taking them.

The value of the subjects in their own right has attracted much comment already including from a former colleague of mine, Charlotte Avery, who is currently Headmistress of St Mary’s School in Cambridge. She wrote, “Arguments that it is a ‘soft’ subject are entirely misguided and stem from a complete misconception about Art in general which as a curriculum subject at school is also considered to be non–intellectual when the reverse is true: at its best it is one of the most rigorous courses engaging personal commitment, independent thinking and creativity”. Hear, hear to that. I have also commented in previous blogs about the value of Latin, another minority subject that regularly comes under threat of being removed from the curriculum.

Of course what all this really leads to is the much more fundamental question of what is education for and what is the purpose of our schools. We are certainly long overdue a proper national debate on that, and I am one trying to work towards it.

However, for the immediate future, the decision by the examination board raises another concern from me. That is the examination boards themselves. Should they be straightforward commercial “for profit” businesses (they are now) or actually make providing a service (which incidentally schools pay for) a priority? The idea that this conflict could be resolved by having one single examination board, possibly in part at least funded by the state, fills many of my contemporaries with certain horror. I am not so sure, nor so horrified.

Is it right that schools can change from an examination in a particular subject to one in the same subject offered by a different board because, in their own minds at least, it will improve their school’s results? I have worked in a school where that actually happened and I am sure I am not alone.

Those against a single examination board usually offer lack of choice as one argument. Many moons ago, before I walked the sunlit uplands of the International Baccalaureate which Cobham Hall now offers, I marked A Level examinations. As part of the training and preparation process, which was reassuringly thorough, I met the Chief Examiner for the particular paper I was marking. Very impressive looking and sounding chap (those of you of a certain age think Charlton Heston in ‘The Ten Commandments’) and he certainly seemed to know his stuff. That same man also wrote the textbook for the course and its revision guides. Examination, books and guides all published by the same company and written by the same person. I do not question the standards or quality of any of them, but is that so far from the scenario of a single examination board?

Back to the villain in the piece. In a letter to schools, the examination board stated that it was struggling to recruit “sufficient experienced examiners” to mark papers in specialist topics as part of the reason for abandoning the course. Simply put the examination board is cutting a service that they believe is uneconomic to offer.

Should that really be the priority? Or should we be having that national debate I mentioned earlier, and be looking at what we want to achieve, before deciding how to pay for it?


Paul Mitchell, Headmaster, Cobham Hall

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