Exams and league tables: are they the reason young people are not ready for the workplace?

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We’re well into exam results season and I still remember very vividly the day I went to collect my A-level results. It was definitely a nervous experience, so I would like to say good luck to everyone picking up their results this month!

But back to the issue: are exams really the best method to assess the success of an individual or of a school in preparing that individual for the world of work? Here’s my personal experience:

During my time in the finance sector, I interviewed a number of graduates and undergraduates whose CVs were outstanding (far better than mine ever was!). They all had immaculate grades, yet throughout the interview process, when you asked them a question to test their reasoning and analytical thinking, they would often stumble or fail. They were clearly bright and accomplished, so why was this happening?

We are all assessed against targets throughout our lives and schools are no different. They are measured against grades and consequently league tables. It’s certainly one way to hold a school to account, but can the process of learning how to work and think independently suffer when the pressure to get good grades predominates? It could explain why so many of my straight-A interviewees couldn’t think outside of a prescribed environment.

This is not intended as a criticism of individual teaching methods. At school I had some inspiring teachers who taught me how to think, discover for myself and memorise Newton’s three laws to pass my exams. And I know this remains an important principle for schools and teachers today.  Former education secretary Michael Gove certainly came under fire from educators when he revealed plans for a new curriculum, which they felt emphasised rote learning over understanding and an “endless lists of spellings, facts and rules”.

Although exams are about more than ‘facts and rules’ and they are a valid way to put key knowledge and reasoning to the test, the reality of the exam process is that it does not facilitate all the skills a young person needs to be successful in the workplace.

At Success at School, our content is designed to encourage students to recognise and develop core work skills. Lets take a look and see how many key employability skills named by employers can be honed through exams alone:

Communication: Good communication skills (written and other) are important for any job that involves working in a team or directly with people.

“During the exam we sat in silence and were only allowed to discuss items with each after the exam was over (FAIL) , but my exam results show that I communicated my answers effectively (PASS)”

Creativity: Showing your creativity is important for jobs in art, media, performance and design, but it also shows you can think outside the box.

“We were all asked to answer the same questions within a strict time limit and were marked against a set of strict criteria” – FAIL

Hard work & effort: Whatever job you choose to do, it’s important to show an employer that you are willing and able to work hard.

“Preparing for exams takes a lot of forward planning and effort” – PASS

Initiative and motivation:Taking on a project or learning something independently shows initiative and motivation.

“We all had to answer the same set of questions or choose between a few options. We could study different things for extra credit but they might not be useful in the exam” – FAIL

Leadership: It’s important to be able to work in a team, but being able to lead one as well shows employers that you could be a great coach or manager.

“Even when I revised with friends, we worked mainly on our own stuff and sat the exams alone” – FAIL

Organisational & time-management: Good organisation and time-management skills show that you are reliable and can be trusted to work by yourself.

“I organised my revision carefully managed to complete the exam with enough time to go through my answers”- PASS

Problem solving: Problem solving is a key skill for careers that involve investigation and experimentation or deal with difficult and changing situations.

“Answering questions and showing how I worked them out demonstrates problem solving skills, but we were dealing with a hypothetical not a real life situation, which could have many more variables and might not cover the examples I have learned”- PASS & FAIL

Self confidence: Self confidence enhances all of your employability skills and gives you the strength to put yourself forward and learn from mistakes.

“I was able to demonstrate this by keeping my head down and getting on with the exam paper” – FAIL

Teamwork: Working well as part of a team is key to delivering projects, improving your communication skills, teaching and learning from others.

“I really wanted to collaborate with my friends on these questions, it would have meant that we got the exam done quicker and maybe better, but again I wasn’t allowed to” – FAIL

We know this isn’t a scientific study, but at a glance and based on personal experience, we think exams effectively help us meet about a third of these core employability skills. We feel it is time to make a change and ensure that regulators take into account students’ overall development as well as their grades when considering their ‘success’. Shouldn’t our schools be assessed on the career and not just the education destination of their students? I think so.

If you are student and want to start understanding more about core work skills, register to Success at School and head to the skills section of your profile. If you’re a school and would like to find out more about how we can help you deliver independent careers advice in the classroom and at home – get in touch today info@successatschool.org.

By Mitesh Bhimjiyani 

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