EXAMS. OLD AND NEW By DR. R. L. JAMES (High
Master of St. Paul's) THE report of the Secondary Schools Examination Council, pub- lished on Tuesday of this week, makes interesting reading. Though the recommendations are unanimous (no mean achievement for a body of thirty-two of such diverse talents), both Minister and Council wish there to be the fullest possible discussion on the find- ings. The report falls into four main divisions—School Records, Objective Tests, Internal Examinations and External Examinations. The Council frankly admit that there is room for experiment in the keeping of School Records, " since the system is in its infancy." The purpose of the Record is twofold: to develop a course of studies suitable to the aptitudes and abilities of the pupils, and to provide them, on leaving, with a comprehensive school report. The Council suggest that the opinion of the teachers may require corroborative evidence from time to .ime, though they give no further details of what they envisage. Of Objective Tests the Council say " they cannot yet be said to have established themselves as normal features in internal or external assessment," but Objective Tests " of various kinds " should be used both to build up school records and to guide pupils to the right studies ana the right employment.
Internal Examinations, both formal and oral or practical, should be a regular part of every Secondary School curriculum. They should, where possible and desirable, be externally assessed, through the association of teachers from neighbouring schools or areas in the setting or marking of papers, and through external assessment on wider lines by appropriate assessors. Both Objective Tests and Internal Examinations are designed to increase the value of the School Record with which every pupil is to be armed when he leaves school. Of the value of School Records, both during school life and as a guide to future careers, there can, of course, be no doubt, though even our present limited experience of a system which the Council describes as " still in its infancy " suggests that there are difficulties. Schools, no less than individuals, are apt to have differing standards. From the employer's point of view a School Record, which is pre- sumably open to the holder, is perhaps not the same thing as private and unofficial comment. And there will be a good deal of additional paper-work and form-filling inflicted on a profession which has already its fair burden. But in general the Council's emphasis on the importance of fitting the course of study to individual ability and aptitude and on the value of the fullest possible information about every pupil will win general approval.
Criticism of the Report is likely to centre round the fourth head- ing, External Examinations We learn from Paragraph 13 that there will be schools "not likely to be concerned with external examina- tions," and it is for these schools that the need for external assess- ment of internal examinations is stressed. A regular external examina- tion will be profitable and proper only for those who have followed courses " substantially beyond the statutory minimum leaving-age." On present showing this means that Grammar Schools and Technical Colleges will take an external examination ; Modern Schools will not. The proposals for External Examinations can be summarised as follows: The School and Higher Certificates are•to be abolished in
195o. The new examination, called the General Certificate of Educa- tion, will take place in May instead of June or July. No pupil may sit for this examination until he is sixteen. There are to be no "minimum " requirements. There is to be the widest possible choice of subjects. Performance in any given subject falls into three grades, Ordinary, Advanced and Scholarship. The examination is to be freely available to candidates who have left school.
The changes proposed in this section of the Report are less revolu- tionary than a first reading might suggest. The abolition of the words School and Higher to describe the two grades of Ordinary and Advanced are, firstly, to prevent any idea that a candidate must normally take the Ordinary before he takes the Advanced, and, secondly, to make the examination available to those who have left school. But, in fact, it seems plain that the Ordinary exam. taken at the minimum age of sixteen will correspond in standard to the present "Credit" in the School Certificate. Equally, the Advanced will correspond to the present " Pass " in the Higher Certificate, while presumably the Scholarship will correspond to the present "Distinc- tion " in the Higher Certificate. The complete flexibility proposed in choice of subjects may, as the Council recognise, be thwarted to some extent by the demands made by Universities and professional bodies. Equally, though this is not said, the limitations imposed on indi- vidual schools by the number and qualifications of their teaching staffs may also in practice dictate certain fixed lines of study. The Report leaves us in the dark on the question of the number of sub- jects necessary for the award of the Certificate. But the main point is clearly that for the candidate who simply wishes to obtain a Leaving Certificate with no reference to a University or professional body the choice of subjects is henceforward unlimited.
The Council's insistence on sixteen as the minimum age for taking the examination is in theory admirable. For the potential University Scholar the School Certificate as we know it at present is often a waste of tilne and energy. For the " average " Grammar School type sixteen is probably the age at which he reaches credit standard in the subjects of his choice comfortably and without fuss. But every practising schoolmaster knows that there exist what, for want of a better term, one may call " the good average," who seem to flourish on the stimulus of an external examination at fifteen. In theory we shall provide for such earth-bound souls delectable fodder outside their Certificate curriculum, which will amply compensate for what, in their ignorance, they regard as a year's delay. In practice it may lead in some cases to frustration. They will not be able enough to reach the " Advanced " at sixteen ; they will be able enough to do the " Ordinary " at fifteen. But perhaps it is right that such boys should be forced to adjust their ideas where others benefit. It is at least a challenge to those who teach them.
The change in the date of the annual examination from June or July to May is, quite frankly, "for administrative convenience." Schools and Universities have experience of the difficulties caused in recent years by the late announcement of State Scholarships. One can foresee the possibility of revolutionary changes in dates of terms and holidays. There is a glimpse of splendid opportunities in a summer term whose last eight weeks are, for senior boys, freed of the July Certificate. There will be difficulties with boys drifting away into posts before term ends and with others who find the remaining post-Certificate weeks purposeless.
But on balance there is little to frighten and much to stimulate in this Report. It is difficult to appraise what is said about School Records, Objective Tests, and External Examinations because the Report lays down three main principles (in heavy type) and leaves the details very much to the imagination. On external examinations its proposals are far more definite. It is true that full judgement must await further details, and not all the proposals will be liked by all. Some of us, though admitting the " tyranny of the School Cer- tificate " felt that both it and its bigger brother, the Higher, were steadily improving and could in the end be made efficient aids to good education. But most of us will be willing to give the new arrival a not-too-critical welcome.