Further education and sixth-form students have become so overloaded with exams that they may fail to develop the independent and creative thinking skills needed to succeed in higher education, college heads have warned, writes Tony Tysome.
The Association of Colleges said the problems caused by exam overload for students, staff and institutions were so acute that a rethink of the system was now urgently required.
Extra public examinations, introduced as part of Curriculum 2000, have forced colleges and schools to create timetables that devote more time to cramming and leave little room for students to explore subjects and develop their own thoughts and ideas.
A-level students now have less than three terms before sitting their first set of exams and, with multiple papers, some find themselves sitting six papers in one day.
Judith Norrington, the AoC's director of curriculum and quality, said: "The AoC isn't calling for exams to be scrapped, but we want a change of focus on where their position and importance should be in the total learning process.
"Currently, pupils and markers are overloaded with exams in the summer term when teachers want to be with their students in the classroom. Written exams are not the only way of measuring achievement."
Chris Thomson, principal of Brighton, Hove and Sussex Sixth Form College, said extra exams meant that entering students for them now cost institutions up to £250,000 a year, on top of the extra cost of having staff tied up marking papers for three weeks.
He said: "It has been one of the strengths of our system in the past that we have trained people to think independently. That is a key asset when they go on to higher education, which I am not sure today's students are gaining."
Jonathan Prest, assistant principal of Alton College in Hampshire, said:
"It means higher education will be getting people aware of assessment requirements but very cautious about taking their own route and less willing to experiment."
The AoC is calling for a credit-based system to be introduced, where students can be rated more according to teachers' assessments and less according to the results of public examinations.