The history of school exams

Submitted by Matthew on 19 September, 2012 - 10:47

The government plans to replace GCSEs with a new qualification, the English baccalaureate, which will put the focus on end-of-year examinations.

Pat Yarker discusses the history of school exams, and how they have been used.


End-of-school exams for all, like mass compulsory education, arrived fairly recently in England.

The situation before 1945 was different, but for two decades or so after that date most working-class pupils were prevented from sitting public exams. Denied access not only to fee-paying schools but also to the grammar schools Labour had established, they could not take the O-Level courses (established in 1951 to replace the previous system of School Certificates) initially only taught there. A situation in which perhaps 80% of each cohort of school students left without taking exams seems extraordinary in our age of over-testing and intensified credentialism.

As exam grades became increasingly read (and necessary) as indicators of labour capacity, teachers took the lead in reforming the assessment and qualification system. They did so principally to provide courses and qualifications (notably varieties of CSE, and then the GCSE) which would go some way towards validating what the great majority of pupils knew, understood and could do, and in order to better equip them for success in the labour market.

At the same time, theoretical investigations continued into how public exams help reproduce and legitimise existing social hierarchies of class, and make individuals available for particular kinds of social definition and control.

In the wake of the 1968 events, two French social theorists, Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron, put forward a detailed account of the role played in capitalist reproduction by contemporary (French) schooling.

Bourdieu and Passeron were interested in how the ideas of the ruling class did indeed come to be the ruling ideas of the age, and why despite securing mass education into the teenage years the education system had failed as a force for social liberation. Instead, school reprised and consecrated social inequality.

Bourdieu and Passeron argued that part of the explanation lay in the way the education system appeared as meritocratic and hence neutral while in fact it ensured that those already advantaged would make the most progress and secure the highest attainment. Teachers who lament the home backgrounds of some pupils unconsciously bear witness to the salience of Bourdieu and Passeron’s insight: social origin tends to predetermine educational destiny under capitalism.

Bourdieu and Passeron noted how those who lose out educationally locate the cause of their failure not in pre-existing social conditions and the biases constructed in the educational system, but in themselves. Such school leavers explain their low attainment in terms of personal inadequacy: they were not clever enough, interested enough, or hard-working enough to do better at school.

Public exams play a key role here, since they ratify the system as meritocratic and so contribute to what Bourdieu and Passeron call its misrecognition: “Nothing is better designed than the examination to inspire universal recognition of the legitimacy of academic verdicts and of the social hierarchies they legitimate, since it leads the self-eliminated to count themselves among those who fail… The examination [has] the function of concealing the elimination which takes place without examination.” (Bourdieu and Passeron, Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture.)

When schools are seen as neutral institutions, and examinations trusted as both formally equal for all and as a publicly-acceptable code for quality (or “standards”), they have wide legitimacy. Students who do well are deemed to do so by dint of their inherent merits, revealed (rather than constructed) by the examination system. But in a crisis such as the current GCSE marking debacle the social role of the examination as a key discriminator for assigning futures becomes more visible. The exam’s status as a neutral mechanism becomes more available for questioning since it is apparent that possibilities for candidates, particularly those at the socially-crucial C/D borderline, have been foreclosed by external pressure motivated arbitrarily (that is, politically) rather than by factors to be found in a candidate’s performance.

For Glen Rikowski, educational activist and theorist, “formal” education is a form of production, and its product is that unique commodity, labour-power: “ ...the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being, which he exercises whenever he produces a use-value of any description.” (Marx, Capital volume 1).

For at least a century employers have regularly accused schools of failing to provide students with “the basics”. We might understand this as pressure exerted by capital on the state to pick up the cost of increasing the capacity or quality of labour-power. Exams become pivotal here as the disciplining element in producing the child as the commodity-labour-power required by capital.

Michel Foucault, picking up on some aspects of the work of Bourdieu and Passeron, explored this “disciplining element” in depth.

He saw the examination as a key part of the historical process which produced the individual in modernity, and made each of us visible for what he called governmentality, or how conduct is shaped. The examination is one of the ways we are each made a subject available for the inscriptions of power.

For Foucault: “The examination combines the techniques of an observing hierarchy and those of a normalising judgement. It is a normalising gaze, a surveillance that makes it possible to qualify, to classify and to punish. It establishes over individuals a visibility through which one differentiates them and judges them… The examination is at the centre of the procedures that constitute the individual as effect and object of power, as effect and object of knowledge.” (Foucault, Discipline and Punish). Foucault’s understanding might resonate with those of us who, in conversation with teachers, have had our children talked about as “being”, rather than as working at, a given test level or exam grade.

Exams, then, have been seen as a means of social classification and control, a stamp of labour-power accreditation, and a way to produce individuals as subjects of power.

More mundanely, they also strongly determine what is taught, and how it is taught. That which is excluded from formal summative assessment is much less likely to find a place on a syllabus or be deemed worth spending class time on systematically. This has always been so, but in the strongly-centralised education system neoliberalism has constructed since 1989 to replace the weakly-centralised version put in place after 1945, the implications are graver.

For example, Michael Gove has directed that primary schools must teach reading only through the use of systematic synthetic phonics programmes, and has instituted an exam for five years olds predicated on such a programme. Gove’s directive and test negates the teacher’s informed professional judgement about how best to help a child become a reader (and about what might constitute reading). It renders that teacher merely an operative.

Gove’s instruction about the teaching of reading also boosts the sale of products designed to underpin the required phonics programme, signalling the increasing, and increasingly-profitable, symbiosis between public exams and edu-business. Public money continues to fund, via fees paid to the privatised exam board Edexcel, dividends for shareholders in its parent company Pearson, and the salaries of its executives. The market in exam-related materials of all kinds is burgeoning.

As well as distorting the work of teaching, exams tend also to distort the learning process, replacing an intrinsic desire to find out, understand, know and do, with the narrower remit of pleasing the examiner.

For the student the risk entailed by an exam system is that education becomes a kind of charade, or is regarded as merely instrumental.

For the teacher, the need for students to achieve given target grades may compel not only a narrowing of classroom experiences but a decision to game the system, perhaps in quasi-approved ways such as exam-question-spotting or the use of class time to teach exam techniques rather than the subject, or in entirely illegitimate ways such as the various forms of cheating which have come to light.

Is it misguided, then, to work constantly to reform, rather than straightforwardly to abolish, exams?

There have been significant positive reforms to the content and format of public exams, and to the proportion of the student cohort included. The time-limited one-shot sit-and-deliver unseen written test remains the most common sort of examination, and that’s a big part of Gove’s new exam plan. But it is not the only sort.

Alternative forms of assessment using pre-released questions, open-book papers, tasks carried out over extended periods, spoken rather than written responses, and varieties of coursework offer ways around the obvious drawbacks of the traditional format and legitimise other ways of learning and studying and other forms of knowledge arguably more necessary for living and working in 21st century society.

A socialist society would, one imagines, need exams neither to differentiate between students for the purpose of creating a hierarchy, nor to motivate students to aspire to rationed social goods. Without a class structure schools would actually fulfil their declared social function and foster educational growth and development in untrammelled ways. (That is, if schools still exist: there are none in the socialist society envisioned for example by William Morris in his novel News From Nowhere.)

Assessing students’ progress and development would of course remain central to the educational enterprise. But that would be assessment’s sole justification, and techniques for enabling it would be developed accordingly, free of the constraints and agendas capitalism imposes. Testing, which is only a sub-set of assessment, might still have a place. Certificating skill and competence at high-value, high-risk activities (say, flying planes and cutting brains) would, presumably, continue to be necessary.

The big question as always is how to get there from here? As Seamus Heaney has his poetic fisherman put it: “Now you’re supposed to be/An educated man.../Puzzle me/The right answer to that one.” We welcome readers’ thoughts.

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