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A-levels fail the Covid-19 test


My 18-year-old can’t believe his luck. School is cancelled – probably for the rest of his life – and he won’t have to spend a most of May and half of June sitting A-levels. Assuming his predicted grades are confirmed, he can take his place at university this autumn.

Others might not be so lucky as the Government, schools and exam boards struggle to solve the mess caused by cancelling the annual month of hell that the UK puts Years 11 and 13 through each year.

But just as Covid-19 has led to a welcome rethink about how workplaces are organised – it also gives the education system an opportunity to fix the farce that is A-levels (and for that matter GCSEs). Why are our children assessed largely on their ability to remember facts, when we live in the world of Google?

Exams are structured so that kids are stuck in a room for up to three hours without phones or computers and made to regurgitate the curriculum they’re taught. Unless both your WiFi and 4G go down at the same time, this will never happen to you outside the exam room.

The two key skills you predominantly need in the world of work are:

1. The knowledge to know where to look for the information you need; and

2. The interpretive skill to take those facts and turn them into useful analysis.

Current A-levels and GCSEs don’t deal with the first, and are not strong enough on the second.

The backward-looking nature of the exam system reminds me of a discussion I had with the deputy head of a well-regarded London academy, which insisted boys wore suits and ties in its sixth form. I asked him why the uniform was so rigid.

“To prepare them for the world of work,” he answered.

“Have you been in the world of work recently?” I replied.

If schools want to move on from the blackboard and mortarboard days, they need to rethink exams. Covid-19 gives them the perfect excuse.

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