Much of the Senior School is undertaking examinations this week, with Upper III to Upper IV sitting their School Examinations and Fifth and Sixth Form students taking their GCSEs and A Levels. The final IB exam was last Friday and the Lower VI and Lower V had their School Examinations earlier this term. Every Senior School student has therefore been caught up in the examination process.

Exams can be stressful and difficult. We all know that sometimes something can go wrong in an exam. I always think of a university contemporary of mine who wrote the whole of an essay in one of her Final History examinations on events in the thirteenth century. In the very last minute of her exam she realised that the question was actually about the fourteenth century, so she added a desperate, scribbled final sentence: ‘And things were much like this in the fourteenth century, too!’

I use this as an allegorical story with students about the importance of always, always reading the question carefully. However, the real point is that even though she had made a big mistake it was not the end of the world. It was only one essay in one examination and she probably learned a lesson for the rest of her life. In the end, she did very well indeed in her degree overall. 

It’s widely felt now that too much of education can be about learning for the test. This kind of learning can by definition fail to go deep and can mean that students do not see beyond the horizon of rote learning of facts. It means that they can fail to see the wider purpose and potential of exams and where they can lead.  Among many other organisations calling for change, Rethinking Assessment has been very vocal in its calls to change our examination systems so that they become part of a more balanced assessment programme.

There is much that is persuasive in this argument, but it is nonetheless important to note that exams, and public exams, do have a purpose. This is the first year since 2019 in which public exams are more or less back to ‘normal’. This is actually a very positive thing and something about which many of our students are quietly pleased. High-quality qualifications that are anonymously and objectively marked are the fairest measure of students’ attainment. It is right that they recognise Abbey students’ hard work and success.

School exams are a useful chance to practise and a time to make, and learn from, mistakes. They test and help to build resilience. Public exams are important, and can help us to move towards other preferred destinations, but they are never end points in themselves and they are never more important than who we are as people. Examination grades can never and should never define us.

Some of the students who have particularly impressed me this week include those who have coped with exams and shown resilience in spite of issues including physical injury and other difficult circumstances that might potentially have derailed them. To see students queueing up to go into their examinations with real humour and good cheer has been genuinely inspiring. 

Even this particularly busy week of exams has been balanced by many other, more exciting events which hopefully help to put assessments into context. In particular, the Lower Vs have been looking beyond the horizon of their first public examination by a combination of ‘Next Steps’ talks, careers ‘speed dating’, Duke of Edinburgh’s Award training and a wonderful celebration that involved extraordinary limbo dancing, amongst other activities. The Upper III have had a thought-provoking and fun day on British values. Lower VI students have been undertaking Geography field trips, making superb speeches at School events and doing brilliantly in Young Enterprise finals amongst many other events. Numerous students, including some who are in the midst of public examinations, performed superbly in last week’s beautiful Summer Serenades concert. There is always more going in in our rich community than assessments alone. Indeed, students arguably do so well in their exams because of, rather than despite, all of their other activities. 

I wish good luck to all of those sitting examinations at this time and, more importantly, I suggest that they seek to keep an eye on the horizon beyond those exams and always to see them as part of a wider context.

Sarah Tullis, Deputy Head Academic and Staff Development