It may seem strange for a Headmaster to suggest that exams aren’t that important, stranger still perhaps for him to be saying it as the exam season draws to a close and the many students who have been hard at work over the last few months can finally take a well-earned break. Let me be clear, in saying this I am not dismissing exams. Examinations have a vital role to play in education, but I do believe that as a society we are far too focussed on exam results.
As a teacher, I value exams as an aid to learning. They signpost to both student and teacher the progress made, what has been understood and what still needs to be focussed on. They are a way to consolidate knowledge and play a vital part in securing learning, allowing students to express their understanding and thereby develop a further appreciation of a subject.
Exams measure only one element of education however and exam results do not define or even wholly describe their holder: they don’t tell us how the student thinks, works, collaborates, communicates or solves problems. Unlike exam results, which can be ranked and graded, these things cannot be easily measured. This has led to exam results becoming a proxy for educational success which in turn has led parents and schools to elevate their importance.
As a headmaster, I firmly believe that the most important parts of education cannot be measured. Opportunities to perform on the stage, play in a sports team, speak in a debate, to travel to an unfamiliar place, all offer valuable learning experiences to develop the skills exams do not assess. An excessive focus on exams risks all these unmeasurable but invaluable extras being sacrificed to the pursuit of results and is counterproductive. As a society we need to recognise that exams measure some aspects of learning, but they are not education in and of themselves.
So, to all those young people who have just completed their GCSE, A Levels or university exams and are anxiously awaiting the results I say, “Well done on your hard work. I hope you are rewarded with the results you wish for.” But if come results day you are disappointed by the outcome, please remember that your exam results do not represent everything you are or can be. They are a platform to build on, not a ceiling on your ambition and you should use them to help you move forward, not allow them to hold you back. Examination results do not define us.
Headmaster, Bristol Grammar School