Exam Nation

Exam Nation

Why Our Obsession with Grades Fails Everyone – and a Better Way to Think About School


Brought to you by Penguin.

Exams, grades, league tables, Ofsted reports. All of them miss the point of school and together they are undermining our whole approach to education.

What is school for? In theory, it equips young people to become independent and productive, to get jobs and forge lives, perhaps to be 'good citizens'. In reality, it means one thing: exams.

By focussing on the grades pupils get in neatly siloed, academic subjects, we end up ranking them and our schools into winners and losers. Some pupils are set on a trajectory to university - the rest are left ill-equipped for the world they actually face. Meanwhile, the 'good' schools become middle-class enclaves and the most disadvantaged lose out.

Drawing on his twenty years as a teacher, hundreds of interviews and his experience on the UK Government's Social Mobility Commission, Sammy Wright shows that schools are - and should be - so much more than this. Filled with funny, tender encounters and an unflinching focus on the profound challenges of daily life for both teachers and pupils, his book argues that we need urgently to think of school differently: as something more like a home than a factory, a community hub rather than a boot-camp or testing ground. Exams and grades are necessary, but they are not what equip children for adulthood, and at the moment they are having the very opposite effect.

Written with a novelist's flair, a polemicist's urgency and ending with a series of practical recommendations for change, this entertaining and hugely important state-of-the-nation book interrogates one of our most beloved and misunderstood institutions and shows us a better way.

© Sammy Wright 2024 (P) Penguin Audio 2024


  • A tremendous book, like the best lesson ever – informed, funny, fair – I’d defy any reader not to learn much of value, and not just about school
    Richard Beard, author of Sad Little Men

About the author

Sammy Wright

Sammy Wright is Head of School at a large secondary in Sunderland. He sat on the government's Social Mobility Commission from 2018-21, becoming a key voice in the debates over exam grades during the pandemic. He has taught for twenty years at schools in Oxfordshire, London and the North East. His debut novel Fit won the Northern Book Prize.
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