Obsession with exam results stifles real learning successes

Last week the exam results arrived and nervous fingers pressed phone numbers or opened envelopes.

Years of work are boiled down to a few letters and dreams of one career or another can come down to a few percentage points one side or the other of an examiner's arbitrary line. But is this the right way to get the best from the next generation?

The university system is under pressure like never before and UK plc needs the best of graduates to put us in a strong position on the far side of this recession. Sadly our schools are also caught in the grade-game. A rise in the top grades this year must mean the school is doing well, everything is on track, well done but if they fall, oh dear!

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Grades are bound to go up and down, as the children will be different every year. It would be unrealistic to expect the school sports teams to win everything every year and we do not expect every pupil to be bigger, faster, stronger or happier than the year before, but somehow there is the nagging feeling that exam result must always go up.

We need a change in attitude about our schools and a review of the way universities admit school leavers. On the school side we should begin by putting individual children first and resisting the annual ritual of sorting pupils and schools into lists and drawing ill-considered conclusions from where they sit.

How can we be serious about every child mattering if we start sorting them out as if they were livestock?

Universities need a closer rapport between schools and higher education so we can work together to get the right pupils on the right courses instead of the current system with its many eccentricities and problems.

Every school has an unconditional duty and moral responsibility to get the best from every child (and should be taken to task for failing to do so) but a child can only do as well as they are able.

Our job is to work with children and their parents to draw out, nurture and promote the talents in every individual and to resist seeing them as human units that contribute to some spurious final point score. We should concentrate on teaching children, not just teaching subjects.

This way we produce ambitious, confident individuals who know what they want, know what they have to do to achieve it and are smart enough to measure their ability against their potential. Only a few can and should get the top exam grades but a successful child is one who holds their final results aloft, proud that they have got the best results they could - be they A grades or not.

This is not a soft approach - standards and expectations should be high for everyone but so should opportunity and access to excellent teaching. This may be idealistic but existing practices across the UK do not seem to be bearing fruit.

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OECD figures show the UK's educational performance slipping year on year compared to other countries in vital areas including mathematics. This will mean greater international competition for our young people over the next decade.

As university funding is cut there will be greater temptation for higher education institutions to recruit more higher-fee paying students from overseas.

We must work within the system and work hard on behalf of the children to do the best for them and help them through to the next stage.

Exams are important, really important, but they are one part and not the end of the process. A good education is about so much more than just learning how to pass the exams. lPeter A Hogan is headmaster of Loretto School