Katja Hiltunen

Escape from the exam factory

Katja Hiltunen King's College London Wednesday 16 May 2018

Like so many of us, I became a teacher because I love my subject and wanted to inspire the same love in my students (a sentiment repeated every year in advertising for teacher training). I most certainly didn’t envisage working in an exam factory.

‘We constantly remind our students about the importance of studying hard, and imply that the consequences of not doing well in the exams are unthinkable. But we often fail to consider the fact that not all students respond to these “fear appeals” in the way we hope they will.’

We constantly remind our students about the importance of studying hard and imply that the consequences of not doing well in the exams are unthinkable. Putwain et al call these ‘fear appeals’ (2015), which students can interpret either as a challenge or a threat. We use these as whole-school or whole-class approaches, but often fail to consider the fact that not all students respond in the way we hope they will: by working hard and achieving high grades (that is, fear appeal as a challenge). For a significant number of students this appeal is a threat that can lead to increased anxiety and academic disaffection. Sadly, this emphasis on exam performance starts in our primary schools, where SATs make children feel like they are ‘a nothing’ if they don’t do well. (Reay 2017: 82)

As Fred van Leeuwen (2016) points out,


‘The enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries sought to liberate the human mind from dogmas and encourage scepticism, tolerance, and critical thinking. It rejected the blinkers that limit exploration and human development.’

I feel that the current examination system does exactly this: it ‘limit[s] exploration and human development’. In this culture of performativity, in which everything revolves around measurable results, learning in the sense of enlightenment has little space in the everyday classroom. The standardised curriculum and assessment, and the league tables introduced by the Education Reform Act 1988 have become ‘common sense’ in the English education system, and somehow we have bought into the hegemony of neoliberal thinking in education. In the words ‘ Pauline Lipman (2000):


‘High-stakes tests, then, frame schooling in a language business understands – regulation, control, accountability, and quality assurance. Discursively, the policies define education as a commodity whose production can be quantified, regulated, and prescribed much like any other product.

Or, put more poetically by Michael Rosen on Twitter (@MichaelRosenYes) and at this year’s NUT Conference (Twitter.com 2018)


‘First they said they needed data about the children
To find out what they’re learning
Then they said they needed data about the children
To make sure they are learning
Then the children only learnt
What could be turned into data
Then the children became data.’

I envy my Finnish colleagues who are in the process of implementing the new core curriculum 2014, which emphasises the importance of active participation and joy of learning (Oph.fi 2017) There are no computer-generated numerical targets, and numerical reports are only compulsory at the end of secondary school, when the final grades are grade-point averages based on teacher assessment. Needless to say, Ofsted and school league tables do not exist either.

Similarly, in New Zealand the new government has promised to axe primary school league tables (Collins 2017), and in Singapore the education ministry is implementing key changes to the primary school leaving examinations from 2021, in order to allow for a more holistic approach to learning (Tai 2016). If more of us recognise that ‘we suffer from a national stenosis of the assessment arteries’ (Higgins 2017), and join organisations such as More Than a Score in their campaign against excessive testing, then perhaps more of us can escape the ‘common sense’ of exam factories.


Collins S (2017) ‘Labour’s education plans revealed: Primary school league tables axed, big NCEA shakeup’, New Zealand Herald, 30 October 2017. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11937975. Accessed 10 April 2018.

Higgins S (2017) ‘Ofsted revamped. Exams reimagined. Funding revolutionised. Education rethought’, Times Education Supplement, 16 June 2017

Lipman P (2000) ‘Bush’s Education Plan, Globalization, and the Politics of Race’, Cultural Logic 4(1). https://clogic.eserver.org/4-1/lipman

Oph.fi (2017) ‘The new curricula in a nutshell’, webpage. http://www.oph.fi/english/curricula_and_qualifications/basic_education/curricula_2014. Accessed 22 October 2017

Putwain D, Remedios R and Symes W (2015) ‘Experiencing fear appeals as a challenge or a threat influences attainment value and academic self-efficacy’, Learning and Instruction 40: 21–28

Reay D (2017) Inequality, education and the working classes, Bristol: Policy Press

Tai J (2016) ‘Emphasise students’ holistic growth to give them skills and values they need for life: PM’, Straits Times, 10 April 2016. http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/education/emphasise-students-holistic-growth-to-give-them-skills-and-values-they-need-for. Accessed 10 April 2018.

Twitter.com (2018) ‘NUT (@NUTonline)’, Twitter handle. https://twitter.com/NUTonline. Accessed 2 April 2018.

Van Leeuwen F (2016) ‘Education, The Enlightenment, and the 21st-Century’, RSA Blogs, 26 July 2016. https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-blogs/2016/07/education-the-enlightenment-and-the-21st-century

Katja Hiltunen has been teaching English, media studies and sociology in secondary schools since 2006, and is now also studying for an MA in education policy and society at King’s College London. She is interested in exploring the language of policy documents and comparing education in her native Finland with that of her adoptive home country of England. She is hoping to continue her studies in a PhD in the near future.