Socialist Alternative

Reject capitalism’s exam factories! A history of exams and the struggle today

The Tories’ planned downgrading of 40% of A-Level results and up to 97% of GCSE results was met with outrage across the country. Protests led by young people against the robbery of their future sprung up in many towns and cities against this unfair declaration of class war, with children denied their grades for the crime of going to a “lower achieving” school.

The pressure put on the Tories by these protests forced them to U-turn, giving pupils their predicted grades as previously planned. This has shown that when we fight back, we can win, and is a powerful signal to the trade union leaderships, particularly the education unions.

This scandal has highlighted the unfairness of the exams and assessment system as a whole. Socialists, trade unionists and radical educators have warned for decades that a high stakes testing regime negatively impacts on children and staff.

History of exams

The emergence of examinations in the UK in the mid- to late 1800s was in the context of big societal changes, where an increasing number of working class people were fighting for an education and against an ‘essentially static society in which social, occupational and personal roles were bound up together and determined very largely by birth’ (Broadfoot, 1979, p. 29). As the capitalist class scrambled for a way to keep control, exams were seen by some as a progressive step towards jobs being awarded on the basis of ability rather than social status; in reality, this did not materialise.

Instead examinations were used as an instrument of social control in state schools and in many workplaces, particularly the Civil Service. Private schools, however, were largely able to resist this and instead continued to focus on the networking skills their pupils needed to remain part of the “elite”.

Even some in Government could see that exams were having a negative impact, and in 1911 the Consultative Committee of the Board of Education recommended that school reports were used instead of examinations. This was also an effort to improve the “conveyor belt” of students becoming workers, as they proposed an increased focus on vocational skills and a closer relationship with employers. Their recommendations were rejected in favour of the School Certificate, for which tests were implemented by universities. It is not a surprise that, as the institutions of the elite, universities were entrusted with managing exams, or that these mechanisms were designed to benefit the elite. The School Certificate also firmly established the centrality of written, standardised tests in so-called “academic” subjects, with subjects like art being relegated to a secondary position.

Prestige of private schools and the 11+

Despite the new tests, the prestige of the school that people attended remained the most crucial factor in their career path; lower attaining pupils from private schools still ended up with better-paying jobs than higher attaining pupils from state schools. The radicalised working class movement during WW2 demanded change, and the 1944 Education Act followed. This was heralded at the time as a progressive move which would improve social mobility, and formed part of the post-war consensus between the major political parties. Its grand proposals of free education for all were welcomed, as was the claim that higher-attaining working class children would be able to attend grammar schools or technical colleges.

This grand plan did not materialise. In fact, the new ‘mechanism of social selection’, the 11+ exam, functioned as a test of little more than parents’ ability to afford specialist tuition. Working class children almost exclusively attended the “less academic” secondary modern schools – technical colleges were few and far between, and even many children who did pass the 11+ were unable to attend a grammar school as there wasn’t one near enough to them. Middle class children were six times more likely to be selected to attend a grammar school than working class children. The primary distinction between grammar schools and secondary moderns was not the work being done, but that middle class pupils attended grammar schools and working class pupils attended secondary moderns.

The 11+ also branded children as failures at a young age, a label that often stuck with them throughout their lives. Chris Horrie (2017) was one of those children, and writes ‘At age 11 it had been scientifically determined that I was stupid … not only dim-witted but officially clueless, with a letter from the government to prove it. That was just the way of it – a stone‑cold, independently verified, rock-hard fact. I went upstairs to my bedroom, drew the curtains and sobbed for days.’

The vile 11+ exams have been scrapped in the majority of the UK, although they remain in place in some areas. Following the phasing out of the 11+ in the late 1970s, areas which did not conduct the exam did not carry out formal standardised testing at the end of Year 6. Children were still informally assessed, and sometimes tests were carried out, but this varied by area. In all cases, the ongoing, formative assessments of teachers played a central role in the transition to secondary school.

Testing from the 1980s onwards

The global education reform movement (GERM) could not stand the absence of standardised testing, however. This movement has been described as ‘an epidemic that spreads and infects education systems’ with increased competition between schools and standardised testing as part of a drive towards the marketisation of the education system. This has certainly impacted education in the UK.

Following the imposition of the National Curriculum in the late 1980s, Standardised Assessment Tests (SATs) were introduced in the three “core” subjects; English, Maths and Science. This had the obvious impact of devaluing the “non-core” subjects, which are now often relegated to a secondary position and taught in the afternoons – when the “important” lessons have been done in the morning.

As Socialist Alternative member and teacher Bob Sulatycki wrote at the time in Militant’s “A Socialist Education Programme”, ‘The testing element of the National Curriculum is its most pernicious feature. Testing of all pupils at 7, 11, 14 and 16 is supplemented by a plethora of mini-tests. Such testing will inevitably be crude and damaging to pupils and schools alike and represents a complete break from all accepted methods of learning in primary schools. Many pupils will now be expected to see their work as “failed” from the age of seven … The overall impact of testing, and the subsequent publication of inter-school league tables of results, wiII rapidly lead to a narrowing of the curriculum as schools and teachers simply teach to the tests.’

This has been borne out, with studies concluding that the UK is among the worst in the developed world for teaching to the test. Even the head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, warned that ‘teaching to the test, rather than teaching the full curriculum, leaves a pupil with a hollowed-out and flimsy understanding’!

Exams today

Exams remain today, as they always have been, a deeply unfair way to assess children’s ability and achievement. The connection between poverty or lower incomes and academic difficulty, particularly in exams, has been established over decades. Working class families are significantly disadvantaged for this reason.

The ‘crude and damaging’ testing system is unfair to schools as well as pupils, as it fails to take into account the significant differences between schools in terms of pupil intake and resources. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; schools where incredible work is being done in challenging areas may achieve more in terms of progress than a school in a more middle-class area,

This unfairness is not an accident, it is an inherent problem of summative assessment; as the Militant pamphlet says, ‘all examination systems exist under capitalism to exclude students, to close down opportunities to mainly working class young people.’

The struggle against testing

The strength of feeling among education workers to oppose SATs and other summative testing is very clear from the repeated industrial action proposed by education unions. At the 2019 National Education Union conference, a motion was passed advocating a boycott of high stakes summative testing in primary schools. The Union correctly said that ‘there can be no lasting solution to problems of children’s well-being, teacher workload, curriculum narrowness and teaching to the test unless our assessment system changes.’ Unfortunately the threatened boycott did not materialise. Unions representing education workers should jointly organise industrial action against schools being turned into exam factories, including a boycott. Boycotts in the past have been aimed at SATs, but could and should also be applied to Reception baseline tests, Year One phonics tests and more. 

Given the situation during the pandemic, which has seen children miss school and now return in very different conditions, it is even more important to resist standardised testing throughout the education system. Socialist Alternative fully supports the #ALevel21Strike of pupils planning to boycott the 2021 A-Levels, and believes this should be extended to GCSEs and SATs, with education workers, parents and carers involved at every level.

Summative assessment through standardised testing is ineffective and plays a counter-productive role in real education. It exists not to assist children’s learning, but to enable the creation of league tables, the enforcement of the ‘standards’ agenda and the ‘production’ of qualified workers. We must reject this, and see it for what it always has been; ‘a strait-jacket which blights rather than enhances the educational attainment of the majority.’

A socialist education system would do away with standardised testing and summative assessment altogether. This does not mean abolishing assessment itself – ongoing formative assessments and diagnostic assessments are key tools in supporting students, and would continue to have a central role. Rather than exams and league tables, a socialist system would focus on real learning, without such a stark differentiation between “core” and “non-core” subjects. Students, education workers and parents have a common interest in fighting capitalism’s exam factories and for an education system which places learning at the centre. 

References/further reading

Broadfoot, P.M. (1979) Assessment, schools and society. London: Methuen & Co.

Broadfoot, P.M. (1984) The rationality of judgement: comparative perspectives on the social role of educational assessment. PhD thesis. Open University. Available at:

Horrie, C. (2017) ‘Grammar schools: back to the bad old days of inequality’ The Guardian, 4th May.

Sulatycki, B. (1992) A socialist education programme. London: Militant.