Reforming the Exam System will be Harder if we keep Celebrating its Final Act

Russell Cailey
3 min readJul 10, 2022

The need to form a combined alliance of schools to push for reform is increasingly urgent

I discussed grade inflation and grade purpose at GESS Dubai in November

We can hardly blame the students.

They have little agency in the system much of society imposed on them. Indeed for many, there is no valid alternative option of schooling differently.

I found myself torn this week. Many friends and peers celebrated and reflected on exam results that were better than expected.

“Massive congratulations” and “outstanding” followed summaries of a pursuit of a numbers game 1–7 or A-E. It seemed as if this celebration was so off-kilter, with many frustrations articulated throughout the year.

While these results are an outstanding achievement by the students engaged within such a system, I can’t help but wonder if our temporary period of celebration pushes back the potential for future reform. Policymakers can continue with this antique practice, with many of the statements on platforms such as LinkedIn confusing stakeholders into thinking educators support the system and exams.

The patterns across many systems are similar, express teaching to the test, and repetitive exam practice. Underpinned with pressure and stress on both educators and learners.

The pandemic showed many educators and leaders that testing could be navigated; one example was the switch to teacher-assessed grading in the British system. Much of this was an unplanned, unfamiliar pivot, the portfolio assessment models built into more problem & challenge-based learning models were able to adapt smoother and faster.

This terminal-examination model stands also accused of being not just outdated but also inflated. Therefore if the trend of increased A’s and 7’s continues in 2022, we can very happily conclude that the students have drastically improved with a hybrid model of learning (another article, for another time), or perhaps more worrying grading has become massively distorted over the last two years.

Online learning and work has soared during and post pandemic

Inflation will eventually knock-on to the universities; it will get harder to distinguish between students based on mere exam results if inflation keeps rising. Thus inflation will cause and drive change in admissions departments regardless — it must do, if they can’t differentiate. Even for those of us who believe pedagogical factors should drive change, this would be welcomed as modernization and progress.

Is it not crazy to honestly not know how you have progressed within our education system until the final day when terminal examinations are released? That educations summative (external body) and formative (often, internal class teachers) assessments are often totally fragmented from one another. Where learners can be surprised at the release of their terminal examination results, after two years of learning that in any other system, they would have regularly been assessed and updated on their actual progress.

In addition the exam system not being very accurate and lacking validity, we must also consider:

  1. What is the mental health and stress damage from the terminal exam-based system?
  2. Is the system accurately representing the challenges these learners will face in the economy?
  3. Is the system future-proof?

In a call to action at the THINK Learning Studio, we are not just encouraging curriculum reform; this message is not progressing fast enough. There is a need for a alliance of schools to be formed, with portfolio-based learning at its heart, with concrete moves away from the terminal exam system and a drive towards challenge, project and problem-based learning. There is also a need to push universities to consider student talents beyond academic subject grades.

We seek to share the success of schools doing things differently and for schools who are frustrated with the lack of reforms to join us in this new alliance to help support each other, removing narrow metrics that fail to equip our learners for the challenges immediately ahead in the post pandemic world.



Russell Cailey

Managing Director of THINK Learning Studio | Curiosity Anywhere, Learning Everywhere.