From the August 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard
In early summer notices appeared in schools, colleges, and universities reading: "Silence: Exams in Progress". Inside, rows of anxious students sat behind desks carefully arranged to prevent them "cheating". It was all part of the mysterious examination ritual, a competitive game which offers a bewildering assortment of GCEs, CSEs. BE-TECs and BAs to the "winners" and sweet FAs to the "losers". The belief that these certificates have some intrinsic educational value is of course a myth.
Capitalist education is dominated by exams, grades and assessment for two main reasons. Firstly, they are a mechanism for selecting and grading the future workforce — employers need an efficient and standardised method of finding the right person for the right job. Some people are trained as accountants and doctors, while others are required for the docks and cash registers. Schools are rather like factories which process both people and knowledge: children are fed in at one end and come out the other neatly packaged, assessed and labelled, ready for wage slavery. This is why money is spent each year on setting, marking and administering exams.
Sir Keith Joseph, the Education Secretary, plans to "improve" school standards and introduce yet another exam, the General Certificate of Secondary Education, to be taken at the age of sixteen. This shake-up is partly explained by the fact that only 25 per cent of school leavers achieve what many employers consider the bare minimum of five ‘O' levels. Presented as a new way of broadening children's education and helping the less academic pupil, the ideas have rather more to do with the interests of the British capitalist class and their need to compete internationally for profits. Keith Joseph could not be unaware of the 1983 report of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, which showed that West German school leavers achieve much higher standards than the British, especially in maths.
Secondly, exams create the illusion of equality of opportunity. According to popular myth, people generally get what they deserve in life. So if you work hard at school, keep out of trouble and pass your exams, the world is your oyster. Were this the case, you would expect someone like the Duke of Westminster, who owns 200,000 acres of land across the world, and has a reported income of £10,800 an hour, to have been very successful at school. In fact, he left Harrow with only two 'O' levels. Any feelings of anxiety he may have felt about his future were eased when he inherited 500 million pounds on his twenty-first birthday.
The sons and daughters of the capitalist class do not have to worry about poor exam results and career prospects as their future is comfortable and secure. These sorts of problems are reserved exclusively for the working class, who are forced by economic necessity to compete with each other in the humiliating examination race. Their prize—a college place, a dead end job. a place in the dole queue. This is something they do not teach you in school.