If we want equal life chances for all we must stop focusing on exam results

The exam grades gap between rich and poor remains stubbornly constant. If we are ever to achieve parity of life chances for all, we must shift the focus away from exam results towards skills such as confidence, resilience, and personal measures of achievement, say Dr Carol Fuller and Gaston Bacquet.

Students from poorer backgrounds underperform in compulsory educational examinations and despite initiatives, the grade gap between rich and poor remains constant.

Culture also has an impact on the persistence of these inequalities; and for us there is no doubt that educational systems around the world are wholly responsible for reinforcing this status quo with their continued focus on exam grades as measures of ‘success’.

Radical re-think

Drawing on both our research and practice, we argue strongly that it’s now time for a re-think on what should count in education in the 21st Century. We suggest that the skills young people need to survive, and thrive, in an era of increasing mental health issues, go beyond traditional curricula. These skills are essential if we are to support greater parity of life chances for all.

Our research and practice over many years clearly demonstrate that how we see ourselves affects levels of educational confidence and engagement, as well as our belief in how much control we have over our own future. This remains true regardless of context or age.

A narrow focus

For example, whilst teaching in Myanmar, we observed that students frequently said that they didn’t feel they were participants in the learning process. Instead they felt they were mere attendees seeking to achieve a good result in their university admission test.

When success is measured not by who we are, but by what we become, autonomy is lost. In Myanmar, a student’s career path is frequently chosen by parents, who want their children to become doctors, business people, or attend universities abroad. ‘Doing education’ solely to pass exams and pursue particular jobs can make learning challenging for those who see little chance of success or simply don’t feel encouraged to find reasons to learn that are much more intrinsic.

In the Middle East, we noticed that there was a very narrow curriculum, with a focus that was geographically and culturally specific, providing limited opportunities for students to learn about the rest of the world.  Students were also heavily tested, with the emphasis very much on passing tests rather than evidencing deep learning through a range of activities.

Critical life skills

A desire to learn is crucial for students if they are to see themselves as respected participants in their own learning process; only then will their confidence and engagement increase. Developing confidence, resilience and aspirations are key to educational attainment but also to the other skills that are essential to thrive in modern society. We cannot underestimate the importance of skills such as communication, persistence and personal challenge and achievement – personal measures rather than national ones that label you either a success or a failure.

The work we are doing with students, mothers and adult learners has keenly emphasised this. It is only by moving away from a focus on exams that can we ever achieve greater equality, or prevent the impeding existential crisis we are creating in our current educational systems.

Carol Fuller is an Associate Professor and Gaston Bacquet is a PhD student at the University of Reading’s Institute of Education.


  • Bacquet, G., (2017), The link between motivation and autonomy and their effect in learning amongst Burmese students, Unpublished MA Dissertation, University College London
  • Fuller, C (Feb., 2009) Sociology, Gender and Educational Aspirations: Girl’s and their Ambitions, London: Continuum.
  • Fuller, C., (2017), The Existential Self: Challenging and Renegotiating Gender Identity through Higher Education, Gender and Education, 66 (2), pp. 131 – 147
  • Fuller, C., Powell, D. and Fox, S. (2016) The outdoors indoors: the role of outdoor residential experiences and students’ perceptions of confidence in school, Educational Review, 46 (2), pp. 232-247
  • Fuller, C. (2014), Social Capital and Educational Aspirations, Educational Review, Vol. 66 (2), pp. 131 – 147
  • Fuller, C. and Macfadyen, T., (2012), “What with your grades?” Experiences of and motivations for vocational education in FE, Journal of Vocational Education and Work. 64, No.1. pp. 87 – 101.