Examinations and young people’s aspirations

Written by Heather. Posted in Featured, News

examinations and aspirations discussed by Heather Mendick

This summer young people aged 16 across England and Wales had confidence in their examination results undermined by being given different grades than would have been awarded in January  for the same work. Now UK Education Minister Michael Gove can position himself as the restorer of faith in our academic system by announcing an end to modular assessments and multiple exam boards and their replacement from 2017 with new single end of course examinations and just one government-endorsed exam board.

How a government in favour of a market system can eliminate the market in examinations is not something Gove discusses – there are always tensions within the conservative party between their neoliberal agenda and their commitment to ‘traditional’ conservative values. What Gove does discuss is how these qualifications will open up opportunities. The new examinations will be:

“in core academic subjects … recognising that they are the academic foundation which is the secure base on which further study, vocational learning or a satisfying apprenticeship can be built. Success in English, maths, the sciences, a humanities subject and a language will mean that the student has the full English Baccalaureate. Now some will argue that more rigorous qualifications in these subjects will inevitably lead to more students failing. But we believe that fatalism is indicative of a dated mind-set; one that believes in a distribution of abilities so fixed that great teaching can do little to change.”

It is remarkable to see Gove presenting those who oppose his move to a system that looks so much like the one I was subjected to in 1986 as having a “dated mind-set”. His plan is to end of coursework (except for science practicals, language orals and geography fieldwork) and focus on English, maths and science in the first year, then expanding slightly to include history, geography and languages. Students who pass all the component subjects will get an English Baccalaureate. It is unclear what will happen to young people who don’t pass all these subjects and/or don’t want their curriculum dominated by mathematics, English and science subjects. It is also unclear what will happen to other subjects – art, music, religion, drama, media, sociology… I assume that most will continue but in a marginal position.

Examination systems shape people’s aspirations, by controlling the directions they can go in and by telling them which subjects matter and which don’t and which people matter and which don’t. My research in mathematics education shows that the main thing which controls whether or not young people choose to study maths post-16 is whether or not they feel they are good at it and the main way they find out whether or not they’re good at it is through how they do in exams and tests. Contrary to what Gove claims, the research suggests that his proposed changes to the exam system are more likely to close down than to open up aspirations and to extend educational inequalities than to reduce them.


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