How best to judge ability at GCSE and A-level?

by Emily

It's summer, and in the UK that means only one thing for many of our young people: the nervous wait for GCSE and A-level results. Their teachers and private tutors are arguably just as tense: those of us who have spent the last year coaching children in the techniques of the Maths GCSE or the English A-level are unlikely to get a good night's sleep until we know whether our efforts have paid off.

But are exams really the fairest way to grade our teenagers? Certainly as private tutors a lot of the work we do (especially in the last term of school) is centred on exam techniques, yet every year the 'exam culture' debate rages on.

Some suggest that exam techniques should be taught in schools to a much higher degree. On the one hand, this would provide a strong basis for all students facing the rigours of exams, but on the other it could easily take time away from teaching core subjects.

So, what alternatives are there?

One option is an emphasis on coursework. This can give students the chance to shine without the pressure of a three-hour window to demonstrate their ability. A flexible system can allow pupils to choose their own topics and style, providing a more enjoyable learning experience. But does it penalise those students who thrive in exam conditions?

A second possibility is the eradication of testing altogether, instead providing certificates of achievement based on students' continuous performance throughout the year, as assessed by their teachers. This sounds like a fair system, but it could be vulnerable to the subjectivity of the teacher, as well as the risk of human error.

As this year's GCSE and A-level grades are eagerly awaited, the debate continues. What is the fairest way to judge the ability of our young people? An overarching focus on one evaluative method can lead to an unfair advantage for some, so is a mixture of both the answer? Or do you think your tutees would thrive if exams and coursework were to be removed altogether?