Educational Disadvantage and the Culture of Examinations

There’s hardly a week goes by without Mr Gove and Ms Truss drawing attention to themselves with their latest wheeze or gimmick – and last week was no exception.

Since they’re currently working in the field of education these specialists in maths/economics/neo-liberalism (Truss) and journalism/neo-liberal political theory (Gove) see a need to make their mark and ‘prove’ their worth with various education policy initiatives – which is very annoying and troublesome for people who have spent a lifetime in education and actually know something about it.

And so last week’s high points for these two ministers were a continuing battle over childcare ratios in the case of Ms Truss, and a Mr Men speech in the case of Mr Gove.

However, of far greater and more lasting significance last week was the announcement by the Institute of Fiscal Studies that its recent research shows clearly that the educational rat race is . . . UNFAIR.

Now when teachers point out that August born and summer born children in general tend to do significantly less well in year-end (May/June/July!!) tests and exams (for very obvious reasons, most of us would say) then nobody pays much attention. When researchers and the IFS say the same thing . . . then nobody pays much attention either. It seems most of us are either too busy or too distracted by Mr Men speeches.

So let’s try to focus a little attention on something important.


In fact, not only is it unfair, it’s also unnecessary. Timed tests and exams which are inflicted on an entire 12 month cohort of children at a fixed time of the year can never be a fair way of assessing any young person’s achievements, aptitudes, academic potential or educational needs.


We’re sophisticated enough these days to be able to continuously track children’s progress and their achievements across a wide range of skills and knowledge, but still we cling to our high stakes timed tests as a means of grading and ranking pupils. (Though the more honest of the cheerleaders for tests at least admit that the tests and exams at 11+ exist mainly to rate and rank schools and teachers.)

Teachers’ expertise in assessment is now, for the most part, highly effective, but in spite of being able to moderate within schools and between schools children’s progress and achievement, in the UK and the USA there’s still an insistence on retaining the standardised tests and exams, which everyone knows simply tell us how well children perform in timed tests and exams.

They tell us nothing about the things that really matter – a child’s levels of curiosity, creativity, problem-solving ability, self-directed study skills, enthusiasm for learning – let alone their communication skills, thinking skills, personal and social skills, empathy, intuition and resilience. But still we insist on measuring children with timed pen and paper exams. PSHE exists in the margins of most schools.

Finland – the world’s most educationally respected and successful country – long ago abolished all national tests and exams up to the age of eighteen. But still Britain holds on to them.

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The Confederation of British Industry insists that employers want young people with a much broader range of skills and abilities, especially creative and teamwork abilities, and  wants teachers to teach more creatively. The CBI therefore want 16+ examinations to be abolished. But still politicians pay no attention.

After a long, long battle the tests at KS1 and KS3 were finally abolished, and somehow the world didn’t collapse. But still it seems timed tests and exams at 11+ and 16+ are here to stay. So how to make them fairer?

To add further emphasis to yesterday’s 3D Eye post, let’s consider a few more issues to go with the concern about children who are “summer born” and the suggested need for weighting factors to compensate for lower scores in tests and examinations.

Perhaps we could have weighting factors to adjust the exam scores upwards for all children who

* experience significant amounts of illness and time off school

* experience abuse and/or neglect

* have significant special educational needs as a result of dyslexia, ADHD, poor short-term memory, etc

* experience significant social and emotional problems, such as anger management problems and low boredom thresholds

* have no access to computers and broadband at home

* have no access to quiet rooms for uninterrupted study and reading at home

* have no access to a well stocked school and/or public library

* have few opportunities to speak with and interact with intellectually stimulating and knowledgeable adults at home

* have parents who are alcoholics or drug addicts

* live in households with significant amounts of violence, emotional neglect, etc

* live in households where there is poor diet, family obesity and/or failure to thrive

* live in households where there is failure to recognise and respond to physical and medical needs

* live in households where there are few books or newspapers

* live in households where there are few toys or opportunities for play, both inside and outside the home

* have very few opportunities for travel, outings and visits

* are required to move home and move school frequently

As well as compensating for these deficits we should, logically, also adjust scores downwards for those who are clearly advantaged (with regard to exam results at least) through

* parents’ ability to pay for additional private tutoring and exam preparation

* parents’ ability to pay for entry to schools with smaller classes and superior libraries, equipment, etc

* parents’ ability to pay for a wide range of educational experiences beyond what happens in schools

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What is very clear and obvious is that the educational rat race is not fair, has never been fair, and will never be fair. There is no level playing field. Children who fail to thrive and fail to achieve at an early age are not doomed for life, but they are at risk of being thought failures or labelled as failing, and because of that at risk of forming a negative self-image. The danger is that they can simply give up on learning at an early age – seeking status, stimulation and success in alternative activities and pastimes.

The greatest gift and the greatest compensation a child can receive is to be with adults who, whatever the level of the child’s academic achievement, succeed in kindling an interest in learning, spark off curiosity, engage imagination and foster creativity. The habit of lifelong learning will carry anyone to wherever they wish to go – eventually. But the habit needs to be established at an early age.

I need to say at this point that most of the things I now know and which are important to me I discovered for myself – mainly after my years of formal education came to an end. I believe I’d have become an enthusiatic lifelong reader and learner regardless of engagement with higher education – and I know many people who have been incredibly successful in life without ever setting foot in a college or university. I also know people with university degrees who are living miserable and unfulfilled lives. Curiosity is a state of mind, and lifelong learning is a precious habit that is undeveloped or underdeveloped in far too many.

Regarding David Blunkett’s insistence when he was the secretary of state for education that “there’s no excuse for failure” – I still see this as one of the most despicable and hateful things ever to have come out of a politician’s mouth. Teachers were not making excuses when they pointed out that there are many and varied causes of failure to achieve.

Do I hold David Blunkett and his successors responsible for the failure of summer-born children to do as well as their peers in examinations? No. Of course not. Do I hold these people responsible for the failure to eradicate child poverty and child abuse? Perhaps – if we agree that it’s possible to get rid of most poverty and abuse through adequate resourcing and through having a proper political will to make these things happen.

Blunkett made the mistake of thinking that if a blind man could overcome learning difficulties and enjoy a university education then anyone could – if teachers worked hard enough and children were adequately supported. What he failed to understand is that it may be possible for a blind person to have a personal learning assistant throughout his or her education but it’s not possible for needy children to have special needs assistants to accompany them into their homes every day.

And whilst many needy children succeed educationally through their own efforts and the efforts of some exceptional teachers and schools, then various accidents of birth, innate psychological and physical difficulties, and a host of other factors will always defeat or depress the achievements of many – certainly in terms of success in timed examinations. It was a disgrace that we ever allowed people like David Blunkett to create league tables at all, let alone league tables that took no proper account of special educational needs, educational disadvantage and learning difficulties.

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To make life fairer and to create equal opportunities we could work hard at creating weighting factors to be applied to the test and exam results of the more and the less able or privileged.

In fact, we can do better than that. We can simply scrap all national tests and exams prior to the age of eighteen, and return to a focus on developing better teachers, better schools, better learning experiences and better systems for tracking pupil progress and for better formative and summative assessment. Others do it. So can we.


About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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2 Responses to Educational Disadvantage and the Culture of Examinations

  1. Melanie Whitfield says:

    Gary, I found your blog whilst at home preparing for a job interview; I have resigned from my Head Teacher job. Your words are inspirational and you are absolutely right about what is wrong. We are failing the most needy and vulnerable children in our society. Let me know if you want any support from an ex Head who came into teaching to make a difference in children’s lives rather than to run an exam factory.


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