Exam hysteria risks costing Britain billions

Published in The Huffington Post on Thursday, 16th August, 2012.

The reaction to the release of exam results has become all too predictable. The results are announced, records are broken and then a chorus of negative comments dominates the headlines.

The number of students receiving the highest grade may have slightly dipped, but instead of celebrating the success of a generation that is often unfairly demonised, we insist on ignoring the hard work carried out by both students and their teachers. As a result, the response to Thursday’s A Level results was about as surprising as the clenching sensation you get by listening to Michael Gove speak for more than 14 seconds.

It goes without saying that this is a dangerous ritual. Not only does it undermine the achievements and confidence of hard working students, it also risks damaging one of Britain’s key exports.

Whilst working as a researcher and speechwriter in Parliament last year, a staffer from the Chinese Embassy asked me why the British media continually talked down students’ achievements.

I was shocked to find that the indignation we display towards young people in this country is reported around the world. He explained the bewilderment felt in China to this peculiar British habit, a sentiment I’ve since heard from colleagues working in other countries.

The financial value of the education sector should not be underestimated. In 2008/09, education exports totalled £14.1 billion. British universities are the second largest destination for foreign students and English language courses provided by organisations such as Cambridge Assessment sell incredibly well – particularly in Asia where a number of countries are undergoing an unprecedented restructuring process.

For example, China has begun moving away from a reliance on the export-led economy that fuelled its recent economic growth to focusing more on stimulating domestic consumerism and innovation. The 12th Five Year Plan downgraded China’s growth figures from 10% to 7% and placed a strong emphasis on developing high-end manufacturing, financial service and pharmaceutical industries.

Likewise, Vietnam – where a staggering 57% of the population are under the age of 25 – is looking to advance both its infrastructure and manufacturing sectors.

To facilitate this development, China and other Asian countries require a highly skilled workforce. They increasingly look to Britain’s globally renowned education sector to provide the knowledge and expertise that will help drive their expansion.

By continually talking down the achievements of our young people we undermine not only their confidence (and potentially their ambition) but also the reputation of an industry that we should be immensely proud of – and one that continues to generate profits at a time when the economy is deep in recession.

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