I Heart Hard Exams

JOE BATES wants harder exams. But not for him: for his little sister.

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I sometimes find it strange to think that I spend so much of my time trying desperately to push for 60%. Watching those who get marks in the 80s with awe is a brand new experience.

My expectations have been shaped by my time at school where, like many at Cambridge, I would have considered a low percentage to be a total balls-up. I went to a good school and in GCSEs like maths near-perfect scores were relatively commonplace. This isn’t boasting: my marks reflect the poverty of the tests, not any brilliance on my half.

Stats suggest that this didn’t use to be the case: GCSE results have risen astronomically over the last two decades, giving swots like me more and more top grades.

People can (and do) argue till the cows come home about why this is. But children today can’t just be much brainier or incomparably better taught than they were in late 80s. The tests must have got at least a bit easier or more predictable, particularly at the top.

Lefties like me tend to give this issue a wide berth, arguing that grade inflation only really affects those at the top anyhow – what’s the point of reforming the system to prop up the egos of the clever and advantaged?

But actually, a Cambridge-style exam would help those from bad backgrounds. Grade inflation is a left-wing issue.

At the moment, a lot of clever people of different abilities are clumped at the top the bell curve. To tell them apart, employers and unis have to use different criteria. These are often weighted in favour of the middle classes, with their cultural capital, pushy mummies and helpful nannies.

So why don’t we drag the curve back down to the middle? Make like Cambridge, and include a page or two of increasingly brutal questions at the end. Make that 100% all but impossible, and watch as the real geniuses flourish.

Exams that really stretched bright students wouldn’t just help differentiate them. It would also do something to occupy the the significant number of people for whom school exams are simply too easy. The rigor mortis that sets when students coast without effort means that many don’t do themselves justice. For those without the resources or knowledge to find intellectual engagement outside of school, a tough exam may be exactly the kind of kick up the backside they need.

But what about the students left behind? Surely those who would have been getting 60% will be distraught over their 40s and 50s? But these are just numbers – they’re only given meaning by context. If that’s what you see everyone around you getting, why would it bother you? Just look at Cambridge. The drop in percentages isn’t what makes exam term hellish. It’s everything else.

So as you look at your incomplete exam papers and low scores over the next week, do try to pity those for whom a 100% score is all but guaranteed. They’re the ones that will really suffer in the long run.