Published as: A Question for the Class of '97, London Evening Standard p20, 20th August 1997


How exams are dumbing down

The moment of truth came when the class of ’97 turned over their examination papers and started to read the questions.

‘Give an account of the position and general structure of the liver. Where does most of the blood supplying the liver come from, and under what circumstances and in what manner does this blood vary in composition?’

‘Draw a map of the West Coast of England and Wales, naming the counties on the coast and the principal capes and inlets. Mark the positions of Aberystwyth, Cardiff, Carlisle, Chester, Holyhead, Ilfracombe, Preston, Southport, and Swansea.’

‘Determine by a geometrical construction the force which, together with a number of given forces, will keep a particle in equilibrium ...’

That’s enough to tax the most agile mind. Could you answer these questions? Could your children? These are typical of the examinations that 16-year-old children took in their stride. Not our children, mind you; these questions are not from the 1997 GCSE’s. They come from the School Certificate exams in 1897 - a century ago.

Are examinations as tough as they were? Employers and parents insist they are not. Educationalists claim that they are. The issue can only be resolved by looking back to the exam papers of the past. Today’s GCSE is descended from the first school examinations, which were set by the Cambridge Board in 1858. For this first year the pupils sat the exams at the age of 15, but it was soon raised to 16, the age at which the exams are still taken today.

As disappointed employers know, educationists always justify the fall in standards. A question in the first-ever School Certificate exam asked: ‘Draw a map of Great Britain, marking the principal rivers.’ That, of course, must be because they didn’t have photocopiers. These days children have printed maps, and (in the age of the motorway) are far more widely travelled.

That excuse doesn’t work. Here’s another question in the 1858 exam: ‘Describe in words the coast-line of England from the mouth of the Thames to the mouth of the Severn.’ Perhaps today’s youngsters are more European in their outlook, and don’t need to know so much about Britain. That sounds feasible until you read the next question from the mid-Victorian exam:

‘Draw an outline map, showing the coast-line of Europe from the mouth of the Danube to the mouth of the Rhine; and mark the chief rivers and the chief ranges of mountains between those two rivers and the coast.’

In truth, yesterday’s school children were expected to know far more about Europe than we do today. Few modern youngsters know where are the capitals of Europe. As today’s teenager: ‘Where’s Brussels?’ and you’d probably be told: ‘In the fridge, next to the parsnips.’

A question from this year’s Southern Examining Group GCSE paper on Modular Mathematics (Intermediate Money Management) begins:

‘Polly receives 600 Christmas cards from a charity. She sells of them at work. How many cards does Polly sell at work? Polly sells these cards to 25 workers. How many cards does each person buy?’

Nobody doubts that young people need to know how to divide up resources, so the question is certainly relevant. Now, step back fifty years. The School Certificate paper for July 1947 posed a similar test:

‘In forming its annual budget, an Urban District Council allows for the costs of (a) services provided by itself, (b) services provided by the County Council, and (c) services provided by other authorities. If (a), (b), (c) are in the ratio of 7:15:2 and the cost of (a) is 427,000, find the costs of (b) and (c) and the total amount of the budget.’

The 1997 test calls for simple division, and is the kind of calculation a ten-year-old could perform. The 1947 question demands a far more solid grasp of mathematics, and candidates had to understand how to adapt their understanding to solve complex problems.
And there is a subtler point too - the question of childhood aspirations. The question about a local authority’s budget from fifty years ago implies that the children might grow up to be, what, councillors? Company directors? House-holders with an eye to what the council is doing? This year’s question about Polly selling charity cards on the factory floor is not much of a target at which to aim. Why not feature questions about Polly the merchant banker or professor, the Concorde pilot or film director?

The world of business is poorly served by modern school examinations. Here’s a typical example from this year’s GCSE:

‘A bike is on sale for 260 at a local shop, Dynamics. Dynamics bought the mountain bike from a wholesaler for 232. What is the percentage profit that Dynamics makes when it sells the mountain bike?’

The question in the 1947 paper was far closer to the complexities of business:

‘During 1945 a manufacturer produced 3600 articles at a cost of 1s 8d each and sold them for 2s 6d each. In 1946 he produced twice as many articles and reduced the selling price of each by 20 per cent. If the ratio of the total profit in 1946 to that of 1945 was 7:3, find the percentage by which the cost of manufacturing each article was reduced. [Answer correct to 3 significant figures].’

The 1997 paper calls for a simple understanding of percentage profit, but fifty years ago this concept was applied to a far more complex situation. Last week I bought four electric lamps at 40p each. The young man who served me added them all up, ‘40p plus 40p plus 40p’, on his calculator. I would hope that a five-year-old could perform that as mental arithmetic without difficulty.

Children usually love going to the infants’, and most of them seem to adore primary school, too. By the time they are stuck in modern Comprehensives, where league tables and high pass rates are all that matters, the joy is snatched away. Many modern children emerge disinterested and dull. The chance to empower them and educate their minds has been lost.
Neglect the physical development of a child, and you can be in trouble from the authorities. Starve a child of nourishment and you can be taken to court. Abuse a child and the police can intervene.

Somehow, it is still acceptable to ignore nourishing the brain. You can starve a youngster of mental stimulation and get away with it. We are losing a generation of children. To my mind, that’s the worse abuse of all.

Brian J Ford’s best-selling book ‘Cult of the Expert’ predicted a lowering of exam standards. He is a Member of Council at the Institute of Biology in London, the Society for the Application of Research in Cambridge, and the McCrone Research Institute in Chicago.

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