COMMENT // Qualifications - the intellectual benchmark or the educational relic?
The dust has now settled on the first year of public examinations in three years. The news cycle has moved on from jubilant adolescents waving their results and now gives way to the space for a broader educational analysis of the current significance and weighting that should be attached to these outcomes.
In the pre-Covid world there was considerably momentum to abolishing public examinations and replacing them with an internally assessed suite of work – a portfolio of assessments, which would be marked by teachers with some loose quality control. It became increasingly vogue, especially within the independent sector, to bash examinations as an outdated model which was no longer fit for purpose. Journalists did not find it difficult to find a willing Head to espouse the merits of a new and allegedly more enlightened approach to assessment. When the pandemic generated unprecedented circumstances, which saw the temporary cessation of public examinations, the reality of school-based assessment emerged, which was a radically different model to the somewhat utopian image that had been presented by the detractors of our exam-based system. It must be acknowledged, of course, that centre-assessed and teacher-assessed grades were rapidly-constructed solutions to a very imperfect set of circumstances and in all fairness, few were advocating a model of this nature. Nevertheless, the past two years revealed that when called upon to do so, there is, in practice, significantly less of an appetite for grading our own pupils’ work.
Perhaps the most important conclusion that this unique educational experiment has demonstrated is that exams are the fairest way of assessing a pupil’s ability. No one would suggest that exams are perfect – some pupils underperform through anxiety and some assessments focus more on the sheer rote learning and the regurgitation of facts than an understanding of the subject, but on balance, exams remain the fairest way of providing reliable, standardised and meaningful metrics. Rather than championing their abolition therefore, the profession should be advocating constructive reforms which make them even more useful and consistent as a means of providing a summative assessment.
But what do employers think about public examinations and the significance of qualifications? In 2019, I led an 18-month curriculum review which explored what employers were looking for from those leaving school. As part of this process, I spoke with leading employers around the world, ranging from innovative and dynamic start-ups in Silicon Valley to major tech corporations including Google and Facebook. I spoke with HR directors and senior executives from major banks and accountancy firms to legal professionals and media consultants to name just a few. Inevitably, there were myriad perspectives, but two key themes attracted considerable consensus. The first of these was that public examinations do remain important. They represent a snapshot of a pupil’s academic achievements and serve as an extremely valuable passport to the next phase of education or employment. The British educational system’s qualifications – and in particular A-Levels – represent a gold standard which is respected across the globe. The second principle finding was that while public examination success is important, it is insufficient by itself to prepare people for the modern workplace. The employment landscape now requires agility, creativity, problem-solving, digital expertise, and working in diverse teams across a range of time-zones. These aren’t things that can simply be taught in a traditional way, but rather need to be experienced through a lived and real-world education.
These two ideas form the pillars of a Hereford Cathedral School education: academic rigour leading to public examination success, and a holistic education which equips young people to be real-world ready. This summer, our A-Level results were record-breaking. With over a quarter of all grades being awarded an A* and with an A*-A rate of 57%, they represented the School’s best outcomes by a cohort taking public examinations. Our Year 13 leavers have impressive outcomes which will open no shortage of doors to interviews, internships, and other exciting opportunities.
Outside of formal qualification-based framework, our curricula prepare pupils to thrive in the workplace and in society at large. This is characterised by two new programmes: the HCS Diploma and the launch of our Futures Department. The Diploma sits alongside the A-Level qualifications and is taken by all Sixth Form pupils. At the heart of the Diploma is the Elective programme – a series of short non-examined courses on coding, cooking, car mechanics, public speaking and interview skills to name just a few. Other aspects of the Diploma include exploring leadership themes, working in teams on exciting projects and taking part in work experience, voluntary work or real employment. Leavers will receive upon completion a digital transcript demonstrating their portfolio of experiences and courses, and how these have moulded their skills, aptitudes and dispositions.
The launch of our Futures Department is a world away from the rather dry careers advice that many of us recall from our own schooldays! Instead, it is an educational culture and approach which begins in the Junior School and goes all the way through to the Sixth Form and even beyond that. It includes bespoke guidance, the facilitating of work experience, networking dinners, and preparation for the increasing use of aptitude tests, psychometric evaluation and gamification as part of the graduate recruitment process.
Qualifications should not be thought of therefore as an educational relic with no place in the modern world; instead they are a key part of what employers are looking for. They are not everything, but they are certainly something which continue to hold tremendous value and will do so for many years to come. A modern education means equipping its pupils for the contemporary workplace, which is at the heart of our approach at Hereford Cathedral School: in practice this means top grades and real-world readiness.