Do School Examinations Fail Some Of Our Pupils?

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Exam Failure


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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How did you score in your maths and English examinations at school?

Our examination system is set up to ignore the individuality of every student. Instead, it’s the strongest and fittest who survive. To highlight this claim, I would like to share with you 4 short stories.

As a student

When I was a student, I was placed into the middle sets for English and maths. I scraped what was then called a ‘pass grade’. How did you perform at maths? Perhaps you were in the top or bottom set and limited by the set you were in? Maybe you failed an entry exam by just one point? This issue has affected us all in this room … some of us survived, others a victim of the standardised test.

In the book, The End of Average by Todd L. Rose, he explains that in the 1940s after multiple flying accidents, the US Air Force had a problem. After ruling out pilot error and faulty mechanics, the main hypothesis became that the average American pilot had outgrown the cockpit, which was designed during the First World War.

In 1950, officials commissioned a new study to measure 140 dimensions of the human body to determine the new “average pilot.” Over 4,000 young pilots had their height, chest circumference, and other measurements were taken. The researchers calculated the average of 10 physical dimensions believed to be most relevant for cockpit design and determined how many pilots measured near the average for all dimensions.

How many pilots do you think were the average?


Out of 4,063 pilots, not a single one fell within the average 30 percent on all 10 dimensions. As Rose says, “If you’ve designed a cockpit to fit the average pilot, you’ve actually designed it to fit no one.”

As a teacher

When I first trained as a teacher, there was a distinct lack of assessment training. Now, this was 25 years ago and as a young teacher, admittedly, I had very little understanding of what assessment was or looked like in my first year in the classroom.

Today, English teachers still receive very little professional development once qualified – one of the worst in OECD countries. Recruiting teachers to the profession is more challenging than ever, simply because teachers have a greater workload; spending more time inputting and analysing data, rather than applying the metrics in practical terms, back into their classroom.

With increasing accountability reaching the classroom floor, teachers can be making up to 27 possible grade decisions per child, in three, maybe 4 areas e.g. behaviour, homework, current grade and predicted grade… and in examination classes, up to 6 times per year. That’s a possible 648 decisions a teacher needs to make per year – for just one student. 30 students? That’s 19,500 data entries … and in some secondary schools where teachers teach at least 5 classes, almost 100,000 possible assessments!

Is it any wonder teachers’ data is inaccurate?

A question a colleague of mine (Tom Sherrington) regularly poses to school leaders. “If your data-MIS system blew up overnight, how long would it take to before the students noticed?”

Every teacher would love their students to score a grade A, but in reality, it is impossible. Not every student can be allocated the top grade, otherwise, standardised testing would be debunked. No matter how hard a student tries, someone will have to fall above and below the average.

As a school leader

If you are a school leader, do you REALLY believe your current examination system is suitable for all students? As a school leader of 17 years, the majority of my time has been spent number crunching for external purposes and performance. Why do we compare one student’s ability against an overall average of everyone else? Surely we should be evaluating one student’s performance against another?

Our education system was designed over a century ago by Edward Thorndike, who constructed to rank students by their performance in a standardised curriculum – for everyone. Those with the best grades go to the best colleges and then go on to get the best jobs.

Todd Rose writes that “It is deeply ironic, that one of the most influential people in the history of education believed that education could do very little to change a student’s ability, and was therefore limited to identifying those students with a superior brain.” Thorndike invented a convenient metric (the Havard 11+ entry test) for evaluating student performance to help teachers and deal with practical educational problems in the classroom. This now results in those most likely to succeed and those most likely to fail.

As Todd Rose asks in his research, how old were you when you passed your driving test? The point is, it doesn’t matter how old you are, the point is, you passed the test.

The current issues with our schools are this:

  1.  External pressures force students to conform and follow a curriculum everyone else is doing
  2. Students have to sit the same courses and complete in the same amount of time – to be ranked
  3.  This process is setup to ignore the individuality of every student. It’s all about selection.

As a parent

Standardised processes are everywhere. Personality tests, horoscopes, performance review ratings and group appraisal targets. These are so ingrained in our consciousness that we don’t even question it.

As a parent, my son will be taking his school exams in 2030. He was born 12-week premature weighing just 1lb 9ozs; 700 grams. Born 3 months earlier than expected he is labelled ‘summer born’ and is the youngest in his year group. Already, he is below expected progress in almost every subject. Is it any surprise that he is ‘always’ behind his peers – a lifetime ahead of underachieving by labelling “below or above-expected progress.”

Only last month I observed him embrace some mathematical problems and the ‘teacher in me’ wanted to unpick the ‘learning’ going on inside his mind. When I ask him “what was it that he had learnt?” His response? “I’m a level 4, nearly a level 5”.


Although I cannot give you a cost-saving political point of view, using my entire life experiences as a student, teacher, school leader and as a parent having gone through our education system, I would like to build upon the research offered by Rose:

  1.  Offer credentials, not diplomas and degrees.
  2.  Replace grades with competency.
  3.  Allow students to determine their pathway of study.

Finally, if our English state schools are not funded sufficiently, then headteachers and teachers will never have the freedom to be this creative, and sadly we will continue way beyond 2030, perhaps for another 100 years living out this myth that we are meeting the needs of individual students. Instead, we are simply continuing to build an industrial-scale approach to assessment for politicians and Governments to make performance an easier sound bite.

Almost one year ago, I spoke in the Debate Chamber at the Global Education & Skills Forum in Dubai. I shared my concerns (in this video) about our flawed examination system which simply does not meet the needs of every child.

4 thoughts on “Do School Examinations Fail Some Of Our Pupils?

  1. I would like to see less tests/exams and more safeguarding the ‘magic’ of learning. Observe 3 – 5 year olds, and you will find that they are right on the edge of life. Work/Activity, Rest and Play all merge into a magical whole.

    The magic is gradually lost for a great many pupils due to being ‘forced’ to learn material and do activities that they are not naturally wired for.

    It would be great to see less pressure for pupils, teachers and headteachers, and replace it with more fun and freedom to learn and do the things kids want to do.

    It is commonly known that children go through phases, and learning is no different. There are two foundations upon which Societies can thrive.

    1. Help children come to a full realisation that they are Creators

    2. Help children to practice the Art of Wellbeing

    Everything else can be built upon these two foundations.

  2. “Do we want an education system that compels each student to be like everyone else, or do we want a system where every student can make their own choices?”

    One of the saddest caricatures I saw that relates to education was this drawing of a teacher going around the classroom cutting off the students’ thought bubbles with scissors to make them all square and uniform across the room.

    I’m reminded of this image when I think of how teachers disregard individual learning and development.

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